October 2, 2019 was the start of the fiscal year for the government, and the first day the Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency (DCSA) was officially open for business.
This agency, created by executive order, has responsibility for conducting background checks associated with processing security clearance applications as well as doing background checks for industrial security concerns.
The DCSA official site describes its mission as, “ensuring a trusted federal, industrial and affiliated workforce.”
A Brief History Of DCSA
It could be said that the history of DCSA informally stretches back to the assassination of President Garfield in 1883. The same year, Congress would consider and pass the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act, which established authority for setting fitness-to-hire guidelines for public service.
World War II saw a big increase in the number of federal hires that required background checks. By 1947 the need was such that Executive Order 9835 was drafted to create a Federal Employees Loyalty Program.
That may sound like a grocery store preferred customer program to some, but at the time the Loyalty Program required an FBI fingerprint process and background check for then-current federal employees.
In 1953, President Eisenhower issued Executive Order 10450 to create a government-wide security program, and the move toward the current culture of background checks, security clearances, and periodic rechecking was well underway.
The Security Agencies
In 1965, DCSA did not exist as such. The Defense Industrial Security Clearance Office (DISCO) was opened that year, and five years later a government panel looked into the concept of using such an office as a non-combatant operation used to carry out all background checks used in processing security clearance applications.
Changes And Consolidation
DISCO would ultimately be rolled into the Department of Defense Consolidated Adjudication Facility in 2012. Later it would be known as the Defense Security Service (DSS) which performed personnel security investigations, but was also chartered to perform similar duties in the industrial security sector.
Changing Times Via The National Defense Authorization Act
Come 2017, there was a study required by the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). The Department of Defense was ordered to review the feasibility of reassigning the mission of conducting background investigations to the DoD.
That reassigned mission would be taken away from the agency known as the National Background Investigation Bureau (NBIB) and the Office of Personnel Management (OPM).
In 2018 the new NDAA included authorization to conduct background investigations for DoD personnel up to 80 percent of all “inventory.” The final move would come in 2019 with a Presidential Executive Order starting the transfer from OPM/NBIB to the Department of Defense.
What DCSA Does
DCSA performs background checks/background investigations to establish the following:
- Eligibility to access classified material
- Eligibility e hired for a sensitive position
- Suitability to work as a government contractor
- Fitness to serve as a non-appropriated fund employee
- Authorization for access to federal facilities and/or information systems
DCSA is the primary Federal agency charged with conducting background investigations and also carries out the National Industrial Security Program. This work involves a process of continuous vetting and review of insider threats or potential threats.
Any government employee who needs a security clearance is subject to an investigation by DCSA, from the lowest entry-level job to the most sensitive and highly visible positions in government.
Some Changes Are Transparent, Others Are Not
One of the stated goals in starting up the new DCSA was to transition from the past way of doing business in the background investigations world into a new era…but without a lot of disruption in the process. “Avoid speed bumps,” said the director of NBIB about the transition to DCSA.
But not all of these alterations were intended to be so transparent. The dawn of the new agency brought with it some important technology changes as well as some procedural alterations that change the entire playing field of background checks and security clearance investigations.
On the tech front, adding video teleconference technology options for background interviews and other checks created a new set of options to help relieve a backlog of investigations that needed to be wrapped up.
On the policy front, a concept known in the industry as “continuous evaluation” has changed the way investigations are carried out. Continuous evaluation refers to a process that would routinely check on those with clearances rather than awarding a security clearance and waiting five to ten years to do a follow-up investigation.
Continual evaluation, also described as “continual online vetting” turns the entire process into something closer to a real-time “reach out and talk to someone” approach once the initial process of investigation has been completed on a new hire.
DCSA And Counter Intelligence
The Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency has a mission that extends beyond background checks. It also plays a role in counterintelligence. The agency has an important role in enforcing security for literally thousands of government vendors in the defense sector.
DCSA not only maintains the security standards for these vendors, it also analyzes them to find ways they need to enhance security procedures, identifies vulnerabilities, and assess threats.
Insider threats are considered one of the biggest issues facing security professionals in general, and one of the things DCSA is keen on developing (based on what has been published on the official site) is generating a network of self-reporting security clearance employees, and one for those reporting on others–even who do not work for the same employer.
Joe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News
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