The breach of an incredible 21 million classified U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) records by Chinese interests has now claimed the resignation of both Director Katherine Archuleta and Chief Information Officer Donna Seymour.
Acting Director Beth Cobert was just starting to grab hold of the OPM wreckage when Inspector General Patrick McFarland dropped a bombshell.
He ruled the revised Federal Vacancies Act and a recent court decision meant that when President Obama submitted her name to the Senate for permanent appointment all of her actions as acting director “have no force and effect.”
Only in the government!
First Congress unnecessarily amended a perfectly fine vacancy law in 1998, then an obtuse court ruling, and finally a bollixed presidential appointment — hopelessly muddling an already historic bureaucratic blunder.
Utilizing all three branches and the bureaucracy to create this mess was not exactly what the Founders had in mind when they set up a separation of powers government.
Unfortunately, it gets worse.
Almost at the exact same time, the White House announced the results of its 90 day review of the original data breach.
The president’s solution was stereotypically bureaucratic, to create a new agency, to be called the National Background Investigations Bureau.
To add to the confusion, White House cybersecurity chief Michael Daniel announced that he would not “get into a specific timeline” date for the changes to take effect.
The new bureau would report to the OPM director who answers to the president but the Department of Defense Chief Information Office would handle design of the product and another DOD bureau, the Defense Information Systems Agency would be fully in charge of operations.
This incredible confusion of authority virtually demands future administrative chaos.
Under the Bush administration, DOD investigations were transferred to OPM, which had long held program responsibility but allowed DOD to conduct investigations for its own employees.
It was decided then that there should be one center for all of this very sensitive function and that investigations were not a core function for the military anyway.
To be effective, the military must have extraordinary loyalty and comradery to bond all soldiers together into loyal members of its band of brothers.
A background investigation, however, assumes some members may not be loyal or responsible.
When I was OPM director under Ronald Reagan, we discovered that DOD was not performing reinvestigations because questioning officers about their activities was viewed as undermining the esprit de corps of the service.
We ordered DOD to comply with regular OPM investigations procedures for all unit members but they refused.
It took a personal visit from me to Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger himself to enforce compliance over the objections of all other top DOD officials including the deputy.
With the newly proposed White House structure weakening the OPM director there is no way she could have the heft to make such a personal appeal to some future top defense secretary.
How important is this authority for OPM?
During my tenure, a serious security breach within the Navy found that a 20 year veteran Chief Warrant Officer John Walker had spied for the Soviet Union at least for a decade and had recruited his son to the Navy to do the same.
As a result, the Soviets were able to track all U.S. submarine missions, resulting in what one official called “irreparable harm.”
Walker was not caught until reported by his ex-wife years after her divorce, which would have been discovered well before by a proper investigation.
Just recently, the Navy discovered a bribery ring involving seven co-conspirators including Chief Petty Officer Daniel Layug who simply logged into classified computers in secure rooms and took the secrets home, against all protocols.
Stealing these secrets ultimately resulted in $20 million in direct damage and probably fell into foreign hands.
Background investigations were placed within OPMs predecessor agency for a sound reason. The decision was made in the wake of the communist spy revelations of the 1940s-1950s.
Yes there really were Red spies — including transferring atomic bomb secrets to the Soviets. OPM had no programmatic relationship to line government responsibilities like the military so it could look objectively at employees from the outside.
Unfortunately, it did not always take such responsibilities seriously until Reagan insisted based upon his experience with communist infiltration of the motion picture industry when he was head of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG).
The President must reconsider or Congress must act. Fortunately, House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Jason Chaffez, expressed skepticism about the White House reorganization, saying it “seems aimed only at solving a perception problem rather than tackling the reforms needed to fix a broken security clearance process.”
The solution is to fix OPM not to create a new bureaucratic nightmare. Chaffez understands the problem, now he needs to fix it.
Donald Devine is senior scholar at the Fund for American Studies, the author of "America’s Way Back: Reclaiming Freedom, Tradition and Constitution," and was Ronald Reagan’s director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management during his first term. For more of his reports, Go Here Now.
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