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Trump administration preparing executive order to transfer security clearance program

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The Trump administration may begin to address one of government’s biggest  frustrations with the stroke of the president’s pen.

Multiple sources say the administration is preparing an executive order to authorize and implement the transfer of the governmentwide security clearance program from the Office of Personnel Management and National Background Investigations Bureau (NBIB) to the Pentagon.

Exact timing of the order’s release is unclear. Sources said they originally expected an EO sometime over the summer, but legal considerations may have pushed back the order’s release until November at the latest.

The Office of Management and Budget did not respond to requests for comment about the administration’s plans for the security clearance program.

The transfer was one of several moves the administration proposed last month, when it unveiled a sweeping plan to reorganize federal agencies and streamline their operations. Specifically, it’s one of a handful of recommendations the White House made to drastically shift focus at OPM.

Margaret Weichert, OMB’s deputy director for management, had told Congress in July the administration planned to take the rest of the summer to work through the details of about a dozen reorganization proposals OMB believed it can accomplish administratively. She named the transfer of the governmentwide security clearance program as one of those proposals the administration believed it could accomplish without help from Congress.

As Federal News Radio first reported, the Trump administration has been considering a move of the governmentwide security clearance program at least as far back as April.

The timeline for transferring the security clearance program didn’t come up at a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee hearing on the administration’s reorganization proposals for OPM and the General Services Administration.

Both agencies described their plans to consider and act on the administration’s proposed moves of OPM’s HR fee-for-service shop, HR Solutions, and federal employee health and retirement offices in phases, but they didn’t mention whether the security clearance transfer would be a part of this phased approach.

OPM may lose 2 of its highest earning activities

Moving the security clearance portfolio and HR Solutions would have significant implications for OPM, which relies on both a revolving fund and appropriations. Not only would the agency lose two of its highest earning activities, but the transfer could also create financial instability for OPM.

One source told Federal News Radio DoD may buy “common services” — which often include legal, IT, administrative and HR support functions — from OPM during the initial stages of the program’s  transfer. NBIB currently pays OPM a common services fee for those resources, and OPM relies on those fees, in part, to financially support itself as an organization.

HR Solutions brings in about $206 million, while the NBIB generates about $1.4 billion, according to OPM’s 2019 budget justification to Congress.

Having DoD temporarily reimburse OPM for common services may ease the impacts of the transfer, which OPM had initially flagged as a concern when Congress first debated the transfer of defense-only clearances to the Pentagon.

The transfer’s impact on the OPM and NBIB workforce is another consideration.

Rep. Mike Kelly (R-Pa.), whose constituency includes roughly 1,500 federal employees and contractors who process security clearances for NBIB in Boyers, Pennsylvania, was originally concerned how the move would impact the OPM workforce — and if DoD would have the expertise needed to quickly and accurately work its way through an immense backlog of background investigations.

But a spokesman for Kelly said the congressman has met with OPM, GSA and the Pentagon about the proposed security clearance transfer. The agencies have assured Kelly current NBIB employees would keep their positions as DoD assumes responsibility for the clearance program, the spokesman said.

“I applaud the Trump administration for announcing … that it will be keeping the NBIB intact and shifting it entirely to the DoD,” Kelly said from the House floor in early July. “This action will keep all background investigations under the same agency and will retain economies of scale to efficiently perform these critical operations. I met with  DoD officials responsible for the transfer. They assured me there are no plans to move any jobs outside of Butler County.”

Congress adds new reporting requirements

As the Trump administration considers how it will finish moving the security clearance portfolio out of OPM, industry is strongly advocating for more changes to the current status quo, which includes a backlog of more than 700,000 investigatory matters and wait times that span, on average, between 200-and-400 days, according to the most recent update listed on Performance.gov.

The Government Accountability Office also placed the security clearance program back on its High-Risk List in January.

Members of industry testified several times this year about their frustrations with both the suitability and the security clearance processes.

Industry organizations have said they crave more information from the executive branch about their contractors who embark on the lengthy and often complicated process of applying for or renewing a security clearance.

Now, it appears lawmakers were paying attention.

Congress included several new provisions in the 2019 defense authorization bill, which the Senate passed last week. It now awaits the president’s signature.

Most of the new provisions include additional reporting requirements to main players in the security clearance and suitability space. One, for example, requires the Performance Accountability Council to provide assessments on the number of pending cases, the number of denied periodic reinvestigations and wait times, among other data points.

Another provision prompts the defense intelligence undersecretary to study potential research and development opportunities to enhance the Defense Department’s existing work on continuous evaluation and and other “advanced analytics in connection with personnel security activities.”

An additional reporting requirement instructs the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) to study the possibility of an expedited security clearance process for mission-critical positions.

Finally, the NDAA requires both DNI and the OPM director, in their capacities as security and suitability executive agents, to establish a “trusted information provider program.” Under such a program, agencies would share background information with each other and with industry groups about the individuals applying for and holding national security positions.

Many of these provisions evolved and changed to account for privacy concerns during the NDAA conference process.

But any publicly-made information on these topics is helpful, said David Berteau, president and CEO of the Professional Services Council. Yet the new provisions only require DoD to report to defense and intelligence authorizing and appropriations committees; they don’t guarantee transparency with industry, the people who live and work in these environments, he said.

Still, the inclusion of these provisions shows a level of focus and care from members of Congress and their staffs that hasn’t always been present in prior years, Berteau added.