One aspect of the Department of Defense and the Navy’s Insider Threat programs that has received a lot of news media coverage lately, has been the significant backlog of background investigations managed by the National Background Investigations Bureau (NBIB).
Background investigations are critical to addressing Insider Threat because it is the thorough vetting that occurs during a background investigation that moves an individual from not having access to national security information to having access to our most sensitive information. A background investigation uncovers potential problems with an individual’s suitability for access to National Security information before we grant that access and actually moves the individual into “insider” status. Only those that have had a thorough vetting through the background investigation process have the ability to take malicious “insider” action that could damage our national security.
In this regard, both Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning come to mind. They both had gone through the background investigation process and they both had been granted access to national security information at some level. And both were able to use their “insider” status to access, exfiltrate, and compromise critical national security information. Obviously, Snowden and Manning are the exception to the rule; the background investigation process works in the huge majority of cases where access is granted.
But in today’s information environment, one person can have a huge impact on our national security. Therefore, a thorough and meaningful background investigation is a critical first step in the insider threat process. It narrows down the field of potential malicious users to a significantly small population. Insider Threat programs are designed to find that extremely small population that want to take malicious or harmful actions and prevent that action before it happens.
Background investigations are important to the overall Insider Threat process, and timely background investigations support the readiness of the Navy to accomplish its mission. So Navy took the backlog of background investigations very seriously when the NBIB approached the Navy in September of 2017 to develop strategies to assist the NBIB in significantly bringing down that backlog.
In August, 2017, NBIB reported that there were over 700,000 pending DoD investigations that were backlogged for various reasons. Of that total, the Navy/Marine Corps team made up 119,655 backlogged investigations, and timelines for the completion of those investigations ranged from 314 to 346 days for Top Secret investigations and 124 to 159 days for Secret investigations. This meant that high value employees were often waiting up to a year before they could begin meaningful work for the Navy. Navy employers had to find unclassified locations for the employees to work, new recruits couldn’t ship to basic training or follow-on schools, both officer and enlisted personnel were placed on administrative hold at schoolhouses across the Navy until they could report to an operational unit, and manpower rolls couldn’t be filled across a host of Navy communities.
As the backlog increased, the background investigation issue directly impacted the readiness of the Navy. Although, beginning September 2017, Navy worked closely with NBIB to address the “low-hanging fruit” of correcting often repeated errors on the paperwork requesting an investigation, we didn’t make significant headway on the issue until January 2018 when the Deputy Director of Naval Intelligence established a branch of her organization dedicated to working collaboratively with NBIB, the Services, the Navy Secretariat and the other agencies of the government to explore, research and develop strategies to truly attack the backlog.
By January 2018, the Navy/Marine Corps backlog had blossomed to 124,211 investigations. Even though these are very significant numbers, NBIB was working the issue diligently. The Navy and Marine Corps together submits close to 26,000 investigations monthly and the overall backlog had only increased by about 4,500 investigations since August 2018. However, the backlog still represented a concern for the Navy and more meaningful solutions had to be implemented. After collaborating with NBIB and the other entities mentioned above, Navy and NBIB settled on implementing “Hubbing” and “Surge” operations at fleet concentration areas as the primary method of drawing down the backlog.
Hubbing operations establish locations in areas where there are a significant number of backlogged or pending investigations with the goal of bringing a large number of investigators and the individuals undergoing investigation together in a central location to hold interviews. By establishing hubbing locations and making the civilian or Sailor readily available for the interviews, NBIB was able to significantly cut the time necessary to locate the individual and coordinate interview times and locations. Surge operations were similar but were focused on smaller areas and NBIB “surged” investigators into the local area over time. Both strategies required some complex coordination and actions by both the NBIB and the Navy, but significant progress was made in attacking the backlog.
In January 2018, the Navy/Marine Corps team had 124,211 backlogged investigations. Through the application of hubbing and surge strategies across the Navy, as of October 2018, the total reduction of backlogged investigations is 33,370. This is the first time the Navy/Marine Corps team has been below 100,000 backlogged investigations since September 2016 and represents a decrease of nearly 27 percent in eight months. It is also important to note that Navy continues to submit background investigations at the rate of 22,000 to 26,000 per month. In addition to the meaningful work that Navy is doing with NBIB, DoD is in the process of implementing several personnel management and background investigation strategies that will further bring down the backlog.
In any case, Navy and NBIB plan to continue to work on the existing backlog by identifying and implementing effective strategies for attacking and decreasing the backlog over time. By developing strategies that effectively address the backlog of quality investigations, the Insider Threat mission is positively impacted.