Charles Sowell, senior vice president of Salient CRGT since June 2013, is generally impressed with the federal government’s progress in security clearance reform since WashingtonExec spoke to him last year.
Sowell, who has overseen the growth and execution of his firm’s National Security and Cyber Solutions Business Unit and has an extensive background in security clearance reform as the former deputy assistant director for special security and senior adviser to the director of national intelligence, particularly cites the brand new – and still developing – National Background Investigations Bureau and the National Background Investigations System.
“The fact that the federal government [created]a brand new agency to focus exclusively on conducting background investigations is monumental,” he says.
He also points out that the Federal Investigative Services group has gained new prominence.
“Now as its own agency, its own bureau with a presidential appointee that will be announced soon – that’s pretty big,” he said.
Social Media Information
Another significant improvement to the security clearance process, Sowell says, results from a directive issued this year by the DNI permitting federal agencies to use and retain publicly available social media information. The directive, which aligns with provisions in the 2016 omnibus spending bill, was a long time coming. Agencies can’t ask for login names and passwords, but anything that’s in the public domain is fair game and could provide a treasure trove of valuable data about applicants.
“The [Director of National Intelligence] is very, very committed to privacy protection, and he’s also very committed to allowing agencies to use this rich source of information,” Sowell says. “Social media is really good at identifying personal conduct issues [like]abuse of alcohol, drug use, foreign travel, mental health issues,” he adds.
Still, “it’s not a definitive source, and I think the government’s approach is that if you are using social media, don’t take what you’re seeing at face value, but use it for a lead to go out and do further research and investigation on that particular issue.”
Of course, that’s also true for any other phase of a background investigation, including standard information sources like credit reports, which aren’t always accurate either.
“You can’t take everything you find at face value, but . . . the social media directive I think gives the exact right balance of permission to . . . make sure boundaries and civil liberties are protected,” Sowell says.
Steady Progress at the DOD
The Defense Department has, by some measures, come a long way in improving its security clearance process. For example, in 2014, it started a continuous evaluation concept demonstration for cleared personnel that has since been expanded and will probably be expanded further by the end of this year.
“That’s interesting progress on a very new methodology,” Sowell says.
However, a number of factors could stymie further improvements. For one thing, the DOD has had its share of challenges in buying computer systems and other information technology that is critical for a smooth, effective security clearance process. There are also political, fiscal and budgetary constraints, including the anticipated fiscal year 2017 continuing resolution that probably will fund the government and prevent the start of new projects. The political transition will slow things down as well. So although the DOD’s technology difficulties are real, they probably aren’t the most immediate problem.
“It’s the funding challenge, the presidential transition challenge, and then the ‘how do you get people’s attention’ challenge,” Sowell says. “It’s going to require a lot of folks to keep plugging through.”
Upcoming Hurdles, Opportunities
It’s not just DOD that has challenges, of course; the entire federal government has a mixed track record with security clearances, including missed timely goals for secret and top secret initial investigations and periodic re-investigations.
There’s also a continuing backlog of more than half a million investigations piling up at the Office of Personnel Management, despite the valiant efforts of federal personnel.
“Although the government folks have done just about everything they can to reprioritize resources, to increase the federal staff of background investigators and to bring on additional contract support, it’s still a big hole that they have to dig out of,” Sowell says. Ever-increasing security clearance requirements and a raft of new procedures and initiatives don’t help. “When you couple that with the continuing fallout from the OPM data breaches, you’ve got some incredible challenges,” he says.
However, there’s reason for hope.
“We certainly see from our customers a continued dedication and a continued commitment to getting things right,” Sowell says. “There is some frustration at some of the challenges that they are facing, but I have yet to see any decrease in the commitment levels or in the passion … I can’t help but be passionate about and want to see this thing through to the end.”