The OPM has long been criticized for its slow processing of background checks, but complaints about its inefficiency have multiplied in the past few years. It currently takes up to 12 to 18 months to process interim clearances, and the agency has a backlog of approximately 725,000 investigations — a figure that it says could take years to bring down. As The Post reported last August, the backlog has made it difficult for contractors to fill sensitive positions and has potentially cost billions in salaries for employees who were unable to work while waiting on clearances. In January, the Government Accountability Office added the process to its “High Risk List” of programs that are urgently in need of reform to “prevent waste, fraud, abuse, and mismanagement.”
The OPM’s handling of background investigations has also given rise to security concerns. The process, which depends on information from self-reporting, has led some to question whether it would effectively identify foreign intelligence operatives or leakers in the first place. No less worrying is the fact that the OPM’s systems were breached in 2014, exposing personally identifiable information for more than 20 million Americans. The GAO made a number of recommendations to help the agency strengthen its information security after the breach, but the House Appropriations Committee noted this year that most of these suggestions had not been implemented.
In response to these issues, Congress has already reassigned background investigations for defense personnel to the Defense Department. Unlike the OPM, which relied on forms and field investigators, the Pentagon has touted its use of automated methods and “continuous evaluation,” suggesting that these tools could reduce wait times from months to weeks or even days. Though this initial transfer was greeted with support from some experts, others expressed reservations about splitting the responsibility of background checks for federal employees between two agencies. Given that defense personnel make up more than 70 percent of all security clearances, consolidating the entire process in the Defense Department is the logical next step to streamlining the system.
There are open and important questions about how the Pentagon will handle background checks — including how it will respect the privacy of the employees and contractors under continuous evaluation. It is natural for civilian agencies to have concerns about the Defense Department taking over a previously civilian function. But in light of the OPM’s failings, the transfer of security-clearance responsibilities makes sense. Now it will be up to the Defense Department to address these concerns and ensure that the background-check process is efficient, secure and accurate going forward.