The National Background Investigations Bureau (NBIB) has officially taken over as the agency responsible for processing federal background checks for the Office of Personnel Management (OPM). However, it will be 12 to 18 months before the NBIB’s secure, back-end IT architecture, which will be managed by the Defense Department, is actually up and running.
As of Oct. 1, NBIB absorbed the existing mission, functions, and personnel of OPM’s Federal Investigative Services. The White House named Charles Phalen Jr. as NBIB’s first director, and he brings a strong security pedigree to the job. Phalen served as director of security for the Central Intelligence Agency from 2007 to 2011, then took over as vice president of corporate security at Northrop Grumman from 2011 to this past April.
NBIB, a semi-autonomous agency housed in OPM, was unveiled in January in the wake of OPM breaches that resulted in the theft of the personal information of more than 22.1 million current, former and potential federal employees. Although inside OPM, the DOD has been put in charge of the IT systems and security for the bureau.
Setting Up the NBIB
OPM, its NBIB transition team and other partners in the federal government have “worked diligently to establish the framework, vision and infrastructure necessary to stand up the NBIB,” Beth Cobert, OPM’s acting director, told reporters last week, according to FedScoop. Now, the hard part begins.
“While we've done a tremendous amount of work up until this point, Oct. 1 is the beginning in many ways,” she said.
DOD CIO Terry Halvorsen told reporters it will be “a year to 18 months” until the “new, more secure, effective, efficient, modern” IT support systems are set up, FedScoop reported. The DOD and the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) have “started architecting, designing, building, securing, operating and maintaining an IT backbone for the new NBIB,” but Halvorsen said the “whole new NBIB IT infrastructure” is not currently ready.
Congress just appropriated $95 million for the DOD to start procuring new IT systems, Halvorsen said. Even after the DOD gets the systems deployed, they will continue to evolve.
Last month, DISA issued a request for information for the National Background Investigation System (NBIS), “the all-encompassing IT applications, storage, security, services, operations, and support” for the NBIB.
DISA also created an NBIS program management office to “establish an enterprise IT enclave that enables business process re-engineering, including modular system development to accommodate changes in data requirements, advanced security protections to safeguard data, enables broad shared services to maximize investments, and not only meets the needs of the end users, but also connects those users to the process.”
FedScoop reported: “DISA has a pretty good idea of the initial IT capabilities it believes the system should have. The agency issued a capabilities document with the RFI that envisions a system with the need to provide position designation, validate investigation need, conduct electronic applications, automatically check records, process applicant fingerprints, provide information to and from the field, and more.”
Boosting Security of Existing Systems
In the meantime, the DOD is working to improve OPM’s existing systems to enhance cybersecurity at the NBIB.
“We’ve done all of the background work,” Halvorsen said, according to FedScoop. “In addition to building the new system, we are aggressively working with OPM, law enforcement, all of the other agencies to better secure the current systems at OPM … We’re not just letting the system currently operate the way it was.”
Last month, OPM announced four indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity contract awards for work with the NBIB. The winning bidders are CACI Premier Technology, KeyPoint Government Solutions, CSRA LLC, and Securitas Critical Infrastructure Services. Each contract includes a guaranteed minimum of $1 million per vendor, Federal News Radio reported.
The NBIB has inherited a backlog of more than 500,000 individuals awaiting either the initial processing of their security clearance or a reinvestigation, according to FCW.
Right now, it takes the government an average of four months to process an application for Secret clearance, and nearly six months to process Top Secret clearance, but the NBIB wants to get those times down to 40 days and 80 days, respectively.
“I am fully aware of the backlog in background investigations,” Phalen said during a conference call with reporters. “We will be working immediately to improve the timeliness and that will be a top priority for me and the entire NBIB team.”
Cobert has said there are numerous reforms and enhancements NBIB will make to improve the security clearance process, including the creation of a law enforcement liaison unit to improve access to criminal history records and information exchanges in a digitized platform. In addition, a new office will be created to lead the automation and management of background-investigation records collection. NBIB will also aim to improve efficiency by setting up a Business Transformation Unit dedicated to transforming business processes.