Air Force working with NBIB, OPM to speed security clearance process

The Air Force is working closely with the Office of Personnel Management and the National Background Investigations Bureau put a dent in its security clearance backlog.

Last month, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said the service had 79,000 people still waiting for security clearance and that number almost doubled in the last 18 months.

“Our biggest challenge with security clearances is getting them through it in the first place,” Wilson told the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee on March 14.

New interview hubs are key

The Air Force told Federal News Radio it has several initiatives in the works with the two civilian agencies to quicken the security clearance process.

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Air Force spokeswoman Maj. Kathleen Atanasoff said the Air Force, NBIB and OPM are establishing centralized interview hubs, and prioritizing submissions based on mission needs.

The Air Force will also soon establish video chat interviews for secret level security clearance interviews, especially for airmen in remote locations, overseas or in training.

Atanasoff said the Air Force is using internal resources to support NBIB in completing parts of the security clearance investigations.

Hubs are becoming a big part of the Air Force’s push to clear its backlog. Hubs are areas where security clearance interviews can take place without requiring someone to go to Washington.

“We don’t do the security clearance background checks ourselves; there’s a process through the Office of Personnel Management and the backlog has gone up from 48,000 to 79,000 in the Air Force,” Wilson said. “We are partnering with them and putting in hubs for the interviews. We’ve asked them to change their processes to be able to do interviews over Skype rather than person to person. It’s a major issue for all of the services.”

The Air Force and NBIB established centralized interview hubs at key Air Force locations where there is a high concentration of investigator case work and where the mission dictates the need for immediate relief to the backlog, Atanasoff said.

“So far, hubs have been established at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Joint Base San Antonio and Tidewater, Virginia,” Atanasoff said. “The NBIB is surging investigators to other Air Force bases with high caseloads, such as Hill Air Force Base in Utah, Warner Robins in Georgia, and several bases in the surrounding Los Angeles area.  Several more hubs and surges are planned for later this year. Beginning in January 2018, the NBIB trained Air Force Office of Special Investigations agents to conduct background investigations at overseas locations where there is a high concentration of case work, but a limited pool of NBIB investigators.”

Prioritizing critical investigations

Last May, the Air Force established its process to prioritize mission critical investigations with NBIB. That process lets the Air Force tell NBIB which cases need to be closed the fastest.

“Thus far, the hub effort has been successful in closing over a 1,000 subject interviews [the most time-intensive portion of the background investigation]. Feedback from NBIB reveals this initiative allows for more efficient use of investigator time,” Atanasoff said. “We will continue to share any best practices with our military counterparts and key stakeholders to identify ways to mitigate the investigation backlog.”

NBIB Director Charlie Phalen said during a March Senate Intelligence Committee hearing the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base hub is seeing increased productivity and finishing work in 36 minutes that would have taken an hour.

The security clearance backlog is a particular problem for the Air Force, which is trying to recruit more cyber experts to its force. Most of those billets need security clearances.

Both the Army and the Navy have direct commissioning for cyber experts, but even if someone starts at a higher rank he or she still cannnot perform fully without a security clearance.

The Air Force has a commissioning program that moves cyber experts from enlisted to officer status, but at this point does not have a direct commissioning program like the Army and Navy.

Three-phase approach for DoD

The total OPM security clearance backlog stands at more than 700,000. It currently takes about 500 days to get a top secret clearance and 260 days to get a secret clearance.

Since about 75 percent of security clearances have to do with Defense Department jobs, Congress tried to speed up the security clearance process by giving DoD authority over its own security clearance process in the 2018 defense authorization act.

DoD has a plan to implement the congressional mandate in a three-phased approach over three years.

“This approach would allow [the Defense Security Service] to begin making an impact on the NBIB backlog of DoD investigations while building investigative capacity, developing automated and streamlined solutions and examining transformational changes to the [background investigation] process,” the plan states. “By the end of phase three, DSS would be responsible for the end-to-end processing of all [background investigations] required for DoD-affiliated individuals.”

Critics of the plan worry DoD is not prepared to take over the process and just adds to the growing list of responsibilities the Pentagon oversees.

Merton Miller, the former deputy director of NBIB, and former associate director for OPM’s Federal Investigative Services, said the transition would be messy and take too much time.

“That’s three more years of doubt that the federal government is going to be experiencing within the background investigative program,” Miller said. “If I was working as the deputy director of NBIB now and I’m onboarding resources, knowing that DoD is going to take over in three years, I’m going to focus on the other [non-DoD clearances.] I’m going to focus on the customers I’m going to have long-term … You can’t take three years to effectively transition this program. You can, but it won’t be done the right way,.”