Senators Want More Detail on IT Plans Behind New Background Check Agency

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

Senators fear OPM “is moving forward without firm plans in place."

Two top Democrats on a Senate panel with oversight of government management want the Office of Personnel Management to hand over “detailed” planning documents related to the standing up of a new agency responsible for conducting federal background investigations.

In particular, the senators want more specifics on IT development and contracting plans.

In a May 18 letter to acting OPM Director Beth Cobert, Sens. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Jon Tester, D-Mont., said they’re concerned the transition “is moving forward without firm plans in place” and that the new bureau will simply be a copycat of the old one. Both senators are members of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. 

According to an Obama administration plan announced earlier this year, the new National Background Investigations Bureau, or NBIB, will be situated within OPM.

However, the Defense Department has been deputized to build and secure the new agency’s IT systems that will eventually store sensitive security clearance data. Currently, that information is stored on OPM servers.

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Last summer, OPM officials revealed hackers had surreptitiously broken past the agency’s digital defenses and stolen data on more than 21.5 million employees and contractors.

The letter from McCaskill and Tester seeks a “detailed description of plans for establishing the NBIB,” including a current estimate of when the bureau will be fully operational and the total cost of standing it up. The letter asks for responses by June 17.

In addition, the senators want to see OPM’s plans for the development of the new bureau’s IT infrastructure and case management system. That includes whether the new bureau is planning on using contractors to build IT systems and, if so, which agency’s contracting office is providing contract management.

The senator also want documents “sufficient to show how the NBIB’s purpose and day-to-day operations will differ” from the current OPM office.

The Pentagon will be in charge of actually building the new background check systems, DOD Chief Information Officer Terry Halvorsen told Congress earlier this year. In a conference call with reporters last month, Halvorsen said DOD has been working “with unbelievably good cooperation” from OPM.

So far, DOD has been recommending modifications to OPM’s current systems and completing some beginning-stage planning for the overhaul.

By October, “We will have some of the initial planning done and we will begin the very detailed planning of how we, from an IT standpoint, will build the new investigation systems,” Halvorsen said.

DOD is providing funding for the first phase of the project and expects to spend $95 million initially, officials testified earlier this year.

McCaskill and Tester aren’t the only voices on Capitol Hill to raise some concerns with the OPM-DOD plan. In the defense policy bill just passed by the House this week, lawmakers mandated quarterly briefings by Defense officials on the status of the project.