New OPM Background Check Bureau Launches October 1

September 29, 2016
By Sandra Jontz
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While the new agency tackles inherited backlog, DOD moves forward with creating its IT backbone.

The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) is launching its new background investigation service following a White House directive to address shortcomings and cyber vulnerabilities that have plagued the agency. Charles Phalen Jr., a former CIA director of security, will be the director of the National Background Investigations Bureau (NBIB) starting October 1.

The White House announced in January plans to create the new bureau following the 2015 OPM hack that exposed the personal information of more than 21 million people, including federal employees and family members of workers who held security clearances. As of Saturday, the OPM-managed NBIB office will handle all federal background checks. Its cybersecurity efforts, however, will be created and handled by the Defense Department.

The Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) is establishing the National Background Investigative System (NBIS) for OPM, said Pentagon Chief Information Officer Terry Halvorsen.

With Congress recently approving a continuing resolution to fund the government, the DOD now has the go-ahead to  appropriate $95 million toward the NBIS, which will replace the current OPM system, he said.

DISA is tasked with protecting the personal information of millions of Americans and their families, leveraging DOD cyber expertise with capabilities including protecting data with its current suite of network defenses, tightening access controls, ensuring that no single person can access all system data, and limiting access to authorized individuals,” Halvorsen said Thursday in a media roundtable with other government officials.

The new system will not be up and running for at least a year, Halvorsen said. “We are aggressively working with OPM, law enforcement and other agencies to better secure the current systems at OPM and make sure that they are within … the DOD [security] ranges,” he added. “We’re not just letting the system currently operate the way it was, and we will have about a year to 18 months to bring the new system online.”

Reducing the backlog in background investigations is a top priority for the NBIB, said Phalen, who last served as vice president of corporate security for Northrop Grumman Corporation. 

It currently takes 120 days to conduct investigations for a secret clearance, longer than the goal of 40 days; and 170 days for top-secret clearance investigations—“well above the standard of 80 days,” said Beth Cobert, OPM’s acting director. The OPM publicly posts the backlog status online

Additionally, the NBIB will create a law enforcement division to improve access to criminal history records, particularly with the FBI. And it will create a Federal Investigative Resource Enterprise (FIRE) to better automate the investigation process for background checks with the goal of preventing tragedies such as the shooting at the Washington Navy Yard in 2013. Security clearance checks failed to flag the shooter’s criminal past. “We have focused on the importance of leveraging technology to ensure we have as complete and accurate access to records as possible,” Cobert said. “This has been a core focus of work within the federal investigative services group, work we want to emphasize even more so going forward.”

Phalen now leads a work force of 8,500 employees—2,500 of them federal workers who will remain on staff after transitioning from the Federal Investigative Service, the NBIB’s predecessor. The remainder are contractors, he said.

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