Anyone who has or needs a security clearance has probably already heard of plans for DoD to take over the background investigations performed by OPM. That move – long in the works – became official on April 24, 2019, when the President signed the Executive Order on Transferring Responsibility for Background Investigations to the Department of Defense. [https://www.whitehouse.gov/presidential-actions/executive-order-transferring-responsibility-background-investigations-department-defense/] As the result, as of June 24, 2019, OPM’s National Background Investigation Bureau (NBIB) has been transferred to DoD’s new Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency (DCSA). At the same time, the DOD office handling background investigations, the Defense Security Service (DSS), will also become part of DCSA. When the transfer is complete by the end of this fiscal year, NBIB’s and DSS’s functions – and to a large degree their staffs – will have been transferred to DCSA.
Starting October 1, 2019, DCSA will conduct all of the background investigations used by the federal government to make decisions about security clearances or public trust positions, suitability, fitness and even facility access for government employees, contractors, and non-appropriated fund employees. Other than the creation of and transfer of functions to DCSA, the Executive Order does not appear to implement any major changes to the existing investigative process. First, the EO does not alter the authority that some agencies (for example, the CIA and the FBI) already have to conduct their own background investigations. Second, authority for policy remains unchanged: DoD’s background investigations remain subject, as government background investigations have been, to the policies, procedures and guidance of the Security Executive Agent (a role held by the Director of National Intelligence) for security clearance and public trust matters and the Suitability and Credentialing Executive Agent (a role held by the head of OPM) for suitability, fitness and access matters.
Surprisingly, while changes to the policies and procedures governing background investigations and clearance decisions have been long promised, this EO brings none of those changes: it simply moves the operations from OPM to DoD. Indeed, the stated goal of the transition is that it be virtually unnoticed by those being investigated or reinvestigated and the agencies that rely on the background investigations.
A logical question is why – if the substantive policies and procedures governing these investigations are not being changed – it was necessary to undertake these changes in the first place. A possible explanation is that removing a major responsibility from OPM facilitates another Administration goal to abolish and move its personnel operations to GSA. The possible benefits and consequences of this Executive Order remain to be seen.