Congress grills NBIB over clearance backlog

Senators expressed deep frustration about the government's lack of progress reducing the backlog of 700,000 pending security clearance requests, with some threatening to overhaul the process completely.

Senators on the Intelligence Committee expressed deep frustration during a March 7 hearing focused on the government's lack of progress in reducing its 710,000-strong backlog of pending security clearance requests.

Charles Phalen, director of the National Background Investigations Bureau, told lawmakers it would likely be years before they saw a significant reduction in the backlog.

Several members of the committee, such as vice chairman Mark Warner (D-Va.), indicated they would consider a complete overhaul of the status quo if significant progress is not observed in the near and intermediate term. Warner wants to "completely rethink" the security clearance process, saying it was not designed to respond to the role of contractors or leaks by insiders to foreign adversaries or the press.

"This is a pure management problem, it seems to me," said Sen. Angus King (I-Maine). "Who's in charge?" he asked, and "who can we fire?"

That answer isn't so simple. The deputy director of management at the Office of Management and Budget chairs the Performance Accountability Council, which manages the governmentwide goal of reducing the backlog. The Director of National Intelligence is also responsible for development, implementation and oversight of procedures governing access to the classified information.

Warner noted earlier in the hearing that the committee invited recently confirmed Deputy Director of Management Margaret Weichert to testify, but OMB declined the request.

One of the witnesses, Professional Services Council CEO David Berteau, said the responsibilities were divided, with many departments and sub-agencies running their own parallel clearance processes despite ostensibly relying on the same investigative standards.

He echoed comments made earlier by Sen. Ron Wyden's (D-Ore.) that excessive secrecy and over-classification within the federal government is a big contributor to the backlog, noting that nearly 4 million federal employees and contractors require some type of security clearance today to operate.

"We've been focusing entirely on the supply side of this equation -- how do we actually move people through the process and put them into clearances," he said. "There is a demand side of this equation as well."

Better use of modern technology was a constant theme throughout the hearing. Warner promoted big data and AI as tools that could be used to help assess people's trustworthiness far more efficiently than the current process does, but lamented that "we've not taken advantage of these [technological] advances."

The Department of Defense is set to take over its own background investigations after a provision in the recently passed 2018 National Defense Authorization Act transferred authority from NBIB to DOD. The department has touted its use of automation and continuous evaluation as a tool that could dramatically reduce background investigation timelines, which average between 200 and 400 days depending on the type of clearance, to a matter of weeks or even days.

Many experts inside government and industry believe that continuous evaluation, a process by which a clearance holder's background is continuously monitored for threat indicators in real time, represents a major opportunity to leverage automated technologies in order to reduce the clearance backlog. Farrell cited DOD's program as a model for the rest of government.

Dan Payne, director of the Defense Security Service, said the use of continuous evaluation within DOD "has been greatly successful and is the way of the future."

"We have to go down this route if we're going to make the necessary changes to make this process better," said Payne.

Warner noted that there seems to be widespread consensus that tools like continuous evaluation are key to solving the problem but little agreement about how best to implement it across agencies.

"We have the notion of increase technology but…I don't see a timeline presented," he said.