New Security Clearance Bureau Will Begin Operations Monday

Acting OPM Director Beth Cobert and other officials stressed the bureau's focus on reducing the investigations backlog. Acting OPM Director Beth Cobert and other officials stressed the bureau's focus on reducing the investigations backlog. Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

The Obama administration unveiled the specifics of how it will structure and manage its new background investigations bureau, introducing its new director on Thursday and attempting to assuage concerns the entity is simply slapping a new name on an existing structure without making significant changes.

The National Background Investigations Bureau will be formally stood up on Monday, with all employees of the Federal Investigative Service transitioning to the new Office of Personnel Management component. NBIB will house about 2,500 federal employees and an additional 6,000 contract workers.

President Obama announced the creation of NBIB in January after the sweeping changes recommended by multiple reports and advisory panels following Edward Snowden’s document release and Aaron Alexis’ shooting of employees at the Washington Navy Yard. NBIB formally began its transition efforts in March and announced indefinite contracts with four vendors to conduct investigative fieldwork earlier this month.

Charles Phalen, currently the vice president of corporate security for Northrop Grumman, will head up the bureau. Phalen worked for 30 years in various roles at the CIA and FBI, most recently from 2007 to 2011 as the CIA director of security. He said on a call with reporters Thursday he was happy to join the NBIB team and was confident the government was “heading down a real, meaningful path” to create change.

“We will modernize the way we conduct background investigations and protect the information behind it,” Phalen said.

Phalen and other OPM officails, including acting Director Beth Cobert, stressed the bureau's focus on reducing the investigations backlog, and said the NBIB’s priorities and organizational structure -- cemented through an executive order Obama issued Thursday -- would bring the timetable for completing a background check closer to statutory requirements. OPM is currently averaging 128 days to complete the investigative portion of secret clearance investigations, nearly triple the 40-day requirement, and 170 days for top secret, more than double the 80-day requirement.

NBIB will house a new law enforcement unit that will work with state and local governments to improve information sharing. The unit will seek to digitize more information and create databases that collect records on an automated basis, rather than relying on field personnel. The unit will also maintain criminal history records and data collected from local law enforcement on a digital platform.

To bolster those efforts, NBIB will also create the Federal Investigative Records Enterprise, or FIRE. The office will focus on creating information-sharing agreements with state and local governments, as well as commercial record providers, and standardizing data exchanges. It will also be responsible for combing through new data sources such as social media to glean information on potential or current clearance holders. 

Cobert promised a “focal point” within the bureau to strengthen relationships with the law enforcement community, saying it would enable “us to understand what we need from them and what they need from us.”

Another NBIB unit will focus on “business transformation,” which will identify more efficient practices such as tasks typically conducted by field investigators that can be automated.

Phalen said the employees and contractors -- who will work together in “one organization” -- will “transition seamlessly” on Monday into NBIB. He cautioned there would be some “kicking of the tires” to getting the bureau fully operational in its early days, but said it would be up and running starting Oct. 1.  NBIB will operate semi-autonomously, obtaining its own resources for services like a legal team, communications, congressional affairs and human resources. The Defense Department received $95 million in the most recent continuing resolution to stand up a new information technology infrastructure to store sensitive data.

OPM has added 400 investigators to increase capacity in 2016, Cobert said, and is still looking to onboard more employees.

Lawmakers in both the House and Senate had pressed OPM in the months since Obama announced NBIB formation for more details on what the new entity would do differently from FIS. House members at a committee hearing in February said the government was headed for “another disaster” with NBIB and warned the administration may be “just putting a coast of fresh paint on a house with a bad foundation.” 

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