Background Investigations

OPM Behind the Power Curve in Standing up the National Background Investigations Bureau

Back in January of this year OPM announced that it was standing up of a new agency, the National Background Investigations Bureau (NBIB), which would take over conducting background investigations from OPM’s Federal Investigative Services by October 2016 as a part of security clearance processing reforms. On August 23, 2016 Senators Jon Tester and Claire McCaskill wrote a letter to OPM Director Beth Cobert expressing serious concerns about current national security background investigation backlogs and OPM’s ability to meet its own self-imposed milestones in standing up the NBIB.

Among the information requested in the inquiry are: proposed location of the new agency; projected number of employees; case management details; status update on current backlogs; and whether or not they will meet the October deadline. This latest inquiry from Capitol Hill is a follow up to a similar letter back in May which expressed similar concerns. Not much news has been released since March when OPM announced who the senior leadership of the new agency would be.

Meanwhile, new security clearance background investigations continue to take longer than ever to complete, leaving applicants and employers to bear the trickle down consequences. Additionally, according to statistics found at, clearance reinvestigation queues have more than doubled this fiscal year. As evidenced by the number of frustrated comments on this site from those who have submitted national security position applications and are in a holding pattern, processes are at an all-time low with no end in sight.

Comment Archive

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    Is there any talk about how OPM is making the process that much more bureaucratic in adding layers upon layers of increased case-type requirements along with ROI-reporting tedium? Frankly, they need eliminate all of the bureaucrats who try to justify their existence and sit around and think by adding more guidelines and requirements you will increase the quality. Do this before they decide to roll out the T3S2R3T4 ESIs.

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    @dcinv, not much in the way of information is coming out of OPM about the transition to NBIB. Just a side note, ODNI is just as much responsible as OPM for the current state of affairs as they are ultimately the responsible agency for national security processes and activities and collaborated with OPM on the investigative standards and training requirements for background investigators and adjudicators.

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    You’re right, ODNI is the culprit. I’d forgotten the origin of the tiered ESI. Years ago investigators complained about the box-checking nature of investigations and interviews. It seems triply true today. I had an OPM S/A interview me for my clearance recently. His head was down about 90% of the time while asking questions. I’ve had more probing questioning from Siri on my iPhone. And as the OPM contractors are burning through investigators (and trying to get higher production for lower pay) and bringing in novices, the whole BI process has turned into mess, with increasingly diminishing returns.

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    Maybe if enough investigators (perhaps a thousand or so) wrote to Tester and McCaskill about the bureaucracy that has become the OPM product and the overall incompetency of OPM in general in losing millions of people’s info yet they are terribly worried when a letter comes back undeliverable or when a Source has moved or gave the wrong address. The OPM BI process is too much checking off the box, rubber stamping, etc. they need leadership and direction. Coburrn doesn’t have the first damn clue how to fix the mess and backlog that OPM has become,

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    Just when we think it wont get any worse it always does. My guess is that they will not respond to this letter and things will continue unchecked with no leadership. The letter is asking for answers to simple questions like a headcount and office locations. Newsflash! OPM has no clue. They have no way of knowing how many man hours it takes to conduct these investigation or if there is even a value in using contractors. Everyone just assumes that contractors are better for this type of work but there are no concrete studies indicating this. The contractor farce will continue and the fast food workers that are soon to be displaced from electronic ordering stations at McDopnalds will be the investigator of the future. Would you like fries with that..I mean is there any reason to question your loyality? Please drive around…

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    It’s a billion dollar business and the guys making the overall decisions are not federal employees but sitting on the boards of the contractor companies or private equity firms. I.e., things like quality national security investigations are nice, but it can’t pay their golf club fees over in Leesburg.

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    Ok as an outsider and a clearance seeker, I’m confused. It sounds like you guys are saying that the current crop of investigators are performing sloppy, half-assed investigations and clearing potentially harmful people without investigating. So why the heck is it taking so long?

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    @Lisa Decarr

    I don’t think they’re alluding to the fact that INVESTIGATORS are performing half-assed investigations; the system itself is half-assed. Anyone that’s been on the job for even a few weeks can point out nonsensical requirements/regulations and questionable methodology.
    Why is it taking so long? Without getting too meta, and for the sake of OPSEC, Investigators–and I’ll also argue reviewers/adjudicators as well–are asked to do so much with so little (at least in the private side, though apparently the Feds are now being asked to ramp up the pace). If you do some digging around in the forums you’ll get an idea of some of the issues we see on a daily basis.

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    Lisa, the investigators don’t clear potentially harmful people. The agencies requesting these investigations do. These agencies work with OPM to come up with a lot of these inadequate and inexplicable investigative requirements.

    As for the new investigators (or 99.9% of them), I’d hardly call them sloppy or half-assed. When you’re working 50 hours a week for $35,000 a year as a new investigator and your company keeps telling you do to more with less, there’s only so much that can be done. When your trained to do one thing and some overzealous reviewer who refuses to change her reviewing practices because “that’s how things used to be,” the investigator can only do so much. When the company assigns 15 cases all due on the same day, and the day after an investigator gets back from vacation, there’s only so much that can be done.

    And everything is taking so long because OPM didn’t have a contingency plan in place in the event their largest contractor would get dropped from the contract, which is exactly what happened two years ago this month. Get used to things taking so long, because there’s no end in sight unless by some miracle some company the size of USIS absorbs the work that’s out there when the new contract comes up in a few months.

    The problem isn’t the investigators. It’s those above them.

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    The largest contractor has been burning through investigators and I’ve yet to meet an investigator, who has done the job for at least a year, who isn’t looking for another job. Any investigator who pushes back, when given work at 150%+ and shorter deadlines, will be threatened with demotion and even termination. These are good and conscientious investigators who have had his or her personal life severely affected and feel trapped. Threats and fears and general insecurity about one’s job and performance can only work for so much for so long. How can this not affect investigations and quality? I know a former investigator who told me that he never had a day off in 3 years of doing the job and now, even over a year after leaving the job, has PTSD from it.

    Another big problem with these investigations is having contractors do the work. People are leery talking to some private individual irrespective of whether clarifies that he or she “is retained” by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management. What the hell does that mean? And since a lot of people haven’t heard of OPM not being a government investigator further adds to the leeriness of the public. As a result, a lot of people will just get the approval of the Subject prior to speaking to a contract investigator. How can this not affect the quality of the investigation??

    This whole privatizing of federal security clearance investigations makes the shenanigans of the DoD contracting in “War Dogs” look respectable in comparison.

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    Truer words have never been spoken, dcinv.

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    Agree 100%, my friends. Wouldn’t be surprised if we all get a big surprise come October

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    I don’t believe that contractors are the problem in this industry. 99% of contractors care about what they do, they don’t cut corners, and they care about the product that is delivered. People aren’t leery of contractors. People are nowadays leery of anybody that calls them on their mobile phone and introduces themselves in some form of representation as retained or with the US government. Federal employees have some of the same problems when introducing themselves to the public. How could people not be leery nowadays with all of the scams going on. My most recent person who wouldn’t return my calls said they thought I was a phony because they had IRS scams going on for the last 3 years when someone would call and indicate they represent the IRS and ask for payments of a tax debt.

    Let’s not blame contractors for OPM’s mess. If they federalize S the B.I. Industry, the backlog would quadruple. I know what the Feds are required to produce and it is a far far cry from what contractors produce. OPM is to blame for the mess they are in. Let’s put the blame squarely upon the shoulders of the agency that have proven their incompetence.

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    @Joe Hackett

    I agree with you that 99% of contractor investigators are earnest, but the contractor companies– due to profit motive and ever-burgeoning OPM requirements– have burned through or burned out the contract investigator ranks and I can’t help but think this has had a seriously deleterious effect on quality. Add to that greater case loads and shorter deadlines and what I said is triply true.

    As for your other point, I have to disagree. In THIS instance, forget the old adage ‘it’s not what you say but how you say it’. A lot of my colleagues are retired detectives and S/A’s and have a commanding phone presence. Still, “I’m a special agent with…” grabs your serious-self attention from the get go, while the required contractor identification “I’m a Special Investigator retained by the United States Office of Personnel Management” has a crescendo like a Nigerian email pitch.

    On your last point I agree with you. OTOH, the federal side does not need to, and will not, simply submit to greater and greater case requirements which are beyond its workforce capacity and reasonable time constraints to complete. I mean, where does this end? When investigations become 100% non-investigative administrative stuff? I sat down and calculated and estimated that the time investigators (collectively) take to check in and out material on only one day would be the equivalent of the total time spent on dozens of SSBI initial investigations of hundreds of SPINs. Really?? An I investigator spends upwards of 90% of his or her time on administrative stuff and less (or much less)than 10% on any investigative work. It gets to the point that doing investigative work, e.g., googling possible sources or trying to find owners of rental properties through public databases feels like it is wasting time when you can simply do a SUBC to get that info for you. I.e., it’s bad when you feel that spending time doing gumshoe work is wasting time.

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    Correction: I sat down and calculated and estimated that the time investigators (collectively) take to check in and out material on only one day would be the equivalent of the total time spent on dozens of SSBI initial investigations **or** hundreds of SPINs.

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    No response yet from OPM? They seemed like simple questions!

    On another note these findings should keep things interesting….

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    Complete mess is due to the same, inept and incompetent managers from Defense Security Service (DSS) to OPM-Federal Investigative Services (FIS) and now to the newly created National Background Investigations Bureau (NBIB)…..I’TS THE SAME UPPER MANAGEMENT PEOPLE!

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    @dcinv @Joe Hackett

    I think part of the problem with the way employees of the contractors are perceived–aside from no one knowing who the hell OPM even is, except for the clerk at the police station you see every Tuesday–is simply the way we are supposed to introduce ourselves.

    People, as we are told, are not supposed to have the impression you are a federal agent:
    “I’m a special investigator retained by OPM.” Shows ID that happens to have a shiny badge. Inside, big bold letters that show “United States of America, Federal Investigative Services, An authorized law enforcement activity… Contract Investigator…”
    In tiny, tiny print, where no one is likely to read, “U.S. Office of Personnel Management.”

    The confused HR representative, whom you thought you would have a 5 minute interaction with, calls his/her superior. “Hey, boss, I have a federal agent here [or FBI for convenience, after all your badge has “Federal” and “Investigative” in it] that wants to talk about Employee X.”

    They’re too busy for your BS so they tell you to buzz off until the next business day. The HR representative asks you for a business card, and you hand him the corporate business card that has your contractor’s name on it, with no indication you’re at all associated with OPM specifically.

    I’d say it’s a bit of a mess when it comes to the layman’s impression.