The Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency’s new program for continuously monitoring individuals with security clearances, Trusted Workforce 2.0, should have all agencies and contractors onboarded by the end of 2023, the agency’s director, William Lietzau, said at a May 26 roundtable with the House Oversight and Reform Committee.
Currently, most federal employees and contractors who hold security clearances have to go through a reinvestigation every five to 15 years, depending on their clearance level.
Not only does this reinvestigation interval run the risk of allowing someone who may develop a security compromise to continue to hold a clearance until their next reinvestigation, but it also contributes to the backlog of background investigations, as investigators must collect years of data at once to make a determination.
Trusted Workforce 2.0 instead aims to have a clearance-holders undergo continuous vetting, meaning that investigation systems are continuously collecting data about individuals to evaluate their security risk.
“We want to increase the number of data points that we’re collecting, and we want to make it go across the entire U.S. government workforce. We’re not quite there yet, but we’re well on our way in the last year,” said Lietzau, explaining that they currently have about 3 million clearance-holders transitioned onto the Trusted Workforce 1.25 program, an intermediary step on the way to full 2.0 rollout.
According to Brian Mazanec, director of defense capabilities and management at the Government Accountability Office, DCSA has made good progress in resolving some of the problems with the background investigation process — such as getting the backlog of investigations down from 725,000 in 2018 to a steady-state of about 200,000 today — but the agency still has more work to do to ensure that they continue to have success.
“These are promising developments, however there are some areas where we thing more attention is needed, specifically in the areas of resource planning and workforce management, timeliness, measuring performance and building out the necessary IT for transformation,” said Mazanec.
Specifically, DCSA needs a more comprehensive plan for how many more resources and employees it will need to support the continuous evaluation element of Trusted Workforce 2.0.
A large component of the preparedness for Trusted Workforce 2.0 will come from transitioning to the National Background Investigation Services IT system, a comprehensive replacement for the outdated, legacy IT systems taken from the Office of Personnel Management, which is currently predicted to fully deploy by fiscal year 2023, according to a February 2021 agency fact sheet.
“One of the things that we saw in the last year was that NBIS was not really on track in parallel with what the Performance Accountability Council was taking our policies. So there was a policy expectation to move in the direction of Trusted Workforce 2.0, but that required an IT component that wasn’t going to be ready,” said Lietzau.
And though Mazanec said that GAO worries that the master calendar does not accurately reflect how long NBIS implementation will take and could end up negatively impacting the timeliness of the program, members of Congress and federal contractors hope that the new system, coupled with continuous monitoring, will help improve security clearance reciprocity between agencies.
“If we can all eventually get onto a singular system that has all of the touchpoints, that will allow much more rapid checking of data,” said Lietzau.
“Coming from industry myself, I saw those problems with reciprocity. You could come up with hundreds of anecdotes of what a ridiculous situation [and] how long it takes them to get on the job. I looked into it when I got here, and [Assistant Director for Adjudications] Marianna [Martineau} and her group in adjudications were already working the issue. At that time it was about 65 to 90 days to get a reciprocity decision just within this agency. And last month she had it down to six days, and this month we’re averaging three days for reciprocity decisions within DoD. Now, that doesn’t cover the entire U.S. government but that is a majority of them.”
Martineau herself agreed that all agencies referencing the same system and being able to pull more up-to-date data should help to speed the process along.
But reciprocity — where a contractor or federal employee working under a security clearance for one agency is accepted at the same clearance level at a different agency — is also stymied by differing standards for acceptability across different agencies.
All federal agencies are required to adhere to the same base standards, but certain agencies or programs can place additional measures on their security clearance adjudications, such as medical evaluations or polygraph tests, based on the nature of their work.
“That’s I think where a lot of challenges in reciprocity begin to manifest,” said Mazanec.
Jessie Bur covers federal IT and management.