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Background Investigations Bureau stands up with director, new offices

The new National Background Investigations Bureau – which will serve as the central clearinghouse for screening current and prospective federal employees for security clearances – will be officially stood up on Oct. 1 with a new director and new operational offices.

After hackers were able to breach the Office of Personnel Management networks hosting background information on some 21.5 million Americans, the administration moved to create NBIB as a replacement for the Federal Investigative Services. Rather than just a cosmetic change, the new bureau will be integrated with the Department of Defense – which will take the lead on network security – and work closely with law enforcement to access necessary criminal histories.

As the new bureau begins operations, Charles Phalen, current vice president of corporate security for Northrop Grumman, will take the helm as director, OPM announced on Sept. 29.

The new role won’t be the first time Phalen has worked with sensitive information. Prior to his work at Northrop, Phalen served as director of security at the CIA from 2007 to 2011, where he led a team doing the same kind of work NBIB will be doing for the entire federal government. Phalen left the CIA with 30 years of public service on his record.

Phalen will be taking over for James Onusko and Christy Wilder, who served as team leader and deputy manager, respectively, through the transition from FIS to NBIB.

"First off, I am fully aware of the backlog in background investigations," Phalen said during a call with reporters. "We will be working immediately to improve the timeliness, and that will the top priority for me and the entire NBIB team."

Due to the backlog, it currently takes approximately 120 days for someone to get secret clearance and 170 days on average for top secret, according to OPM acting Director Beth Cobert. Phalen and Cobert admitted this is far too long and is one of the largest hurdles to getting qualified people into public service.

As part of the plan to speed up the process, the administration is also creating the Federal Investigative Records Enterprise (FIRE), an office within NBIB that will liaise with law enforcement and work on automating the background investigations process, including collection and retention.

Onusko will stay on to lead this new office.

Wilder will be staying on, as well, Phalen said. Her exact position has yet to be defined, he added, though she will be acting as chief of staff for all intents and purposes.

Cobert said OPM is also currently searching for the right person to fill the role of liaison with the FBI and state and local law enforcement.

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