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Q&A: The Future of Background Checks

​Charles Phalen, Jr., director of the U.S. National Background Investigations Bureau (NBIB), explains his goals for the bureau in 2017.​

Q. You were appointed by U.S. President Barack Obama to lead the NBIB when it was created in October 2016, and then asked to stay on by President Donald Trump. What were the main issues for you going into your role?

A. There were two big issues. One is, there is this backlog of background investigations that everybody refers to—it’s significant. That number is interesting, but it’s not the real number. The real number is how long does it take us to turn out an investigation? If we had a backlog of 5 billion cases, nobody would care as long as we were turning out the investigations on a timely basis. We aren’t, so we have an immediate problem to deal with which is to reduce the time it takes to get somebody a national security clearance. 

The other piece is, what does the future look like? We’re operating with legacy IT systems; we’re operating with a process that dates back to before I was born. We have a good chance to reexamine that process of how do you initially determine whether somebody is trustworthy and…how do you continue to maintain that trust?

Q. The NBIB was created after the massive U.S. Office of Personnel Management cyber breach in 2015. How important is rebuilding trust in your ability to keep their data safe?

A. The worst thing I could do is lose any more data. The second worst thing I could do is make promises I can’t keep, so we have worked extensively with the chief information officer and other outside organizations—including the U.S. Department of Defense—to look at our system, as it is. A lot of work was done immediately after the breach—a lot of strengthening of the system—and I am comfortable that it is protected to a high degree.

But having said that, how do I convince the world? I don’t have a good answer for that right now other than we have to prove to them that we can protect it….Putting out a poster that says, “Trust Me.” I don’t know that that works. Our record’s going to reflect that.

Q. What do you see as the major challenges for NBIB in 2017?

A. Related to the Trump administration, I don’t see any major challenges. There is a common thread that no administration wants people to betray trust, and administrations want us to have people who are cleared and trustworthy. 

The real issue with anything is are things funded? This has been a perennial issue in security in general, ensuring that the amount of funding is there to make sure that the investigations can be done and that [the government agencies] can fund them.

And again, it’s not just what we’re trying to do at NBIB. The whole issue of protecting information globally by the government is absolutely critical. The last administration got it; I expect this one will get it.

I also don’t see any roadblocks to continuing the progress towards streamlining the process. I have every reason to believe that [Trump] will follow suit like every other administration. They want us to do this right, and we’ll get an opportunity to do it right.

​For an extended version of this interview, click here.​