Senators press personnel agency on planned revamp of background investigations

Washington Post

by Eric Yoder

Two leading senators on government management issues want the administration to spell out how it will create a new bureau to take over background investigations, while seeking assurance that the project will amount to more than a reshuffling.

“We are concerned that this transition is moving forward without firm plans in place for the transition, operation and oversight of the new bureau,” says a letter that Sens. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and Jon Tester (D-Mont.) sent Wednesday to the Office of Personnel Management.

Administration officials in January announced plans to create a new, semi-independent entity within the OPM to be called the National Background Investigations Bureau to take over OPM’s current Federal Investigative Services branch. Meanwhile, responsibility for storing and guarding the information gathered will be shifted to the Defense Department.

Those changes resulted from an internal review after breaches announced a year ago of OPM’s security clearance database, resulting in the theft of personal information on some 21 million current and former federal employees, military and contractor personnel and others on whom the government had performed background checks since about 2000. There also was a separate breach of a federal personnel database.

Other changes announced in January include a reinvestigation of security clearance holders every five years regardless of the level of access, and continuous investigations to determine whether they continue to meet requirements for eligibility.

The FIS – using its own employees plus contractors – conducts about 1 million background investigations annually, 95 percent of the government-wide total, for about 100 other agencies. Those checks are performed when federal employees and others apply for new security clearances or have them renewed, as well as for access into certain government facilities.

The letter says the senators “want to ensure that the NBIB will not simply be a new name for the FIS. Instead, it is critical that you make significant structural changes to improve the integrity, management and oversight of the security clearance process.”

“We also remain concerned about the timeliness of current and pending investigations and want to ensure that plans are in place to address the significant backlog of background investigations during this transition, while maintaining the integrity of the investigation process,” says the letter to OPM Acting Director Beth Cobert.

In fiscal years 2014 and 2015, OPM received fewer requests for investigations than projected but “despite OPM increasing its revenues and hiring more investigators, the rate of case closure has dropped and it is taking far longer to complete investigations,” it says.

The letter asks for information including a timeline of key milestones; the projected upfront and annual operating costs; the expected mix of contractor and federal employees; how the information technology aspects are to be handled; what changes in investigative policies are planned; and how the existing backlog will be addressed.

“We received Senator McCaskill’s letter today and welcome her input as we move through this process,” OPM press secretary Sam Schumach said in an email. “We also agree that the NBIB should represent real change from the past, and we are committed to continue standing up NBIB in a way that strengthens how the federal government conducts background investigations and protects vital information.”

Cobert told a House hearing last week that “Our goal is to have the NBIB’s initial operating capability officially established with a new organizational design and leader by October 2016, though implementation work will remain to be done after this date.”

A transition team is in place, consisting of senior officials with expertise in the background investigations and security clearance processes, as well as experience in leading government organizations through transitions, she said.

The hearing touched on the new bureau while mainly focusing on another initiative regarding background investigations, to include checks of an individual’s public social media postings.

McCaskill in March introduced a bill to give the Defense Department’s inspector general the authority to conduct oversight of the new bureau within OPM, saying that as currently envisioned, no one office would have independent oversight powers.