Buried in the Trump administrationâ€™s 132-page plan to overhaul the federal government is a significant policy shift that has received little attention: a proposal to transfer responsibility for background investigations for security clearances from the Office of Personnel Management to the Defense Department. As many federal employees and contractors know firsthand, this change is a long time coming.
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.
The OPMâ€™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 OPMâ€™s systems were breached in 2014, exposing personally identifiable information for more than 20 million Americans.
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 â€ścontinuous evaluation,â€ť suggesting that these tools could reduce wait times from months to weeks or even days.
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.
But in light of the OPMâ€™s failings, the transfer of security-clearance responsibilities makes sense.