Charles Sowell serves as senior vice president in Salient Federal Solutions‘ system and software engineering solutions business unit, where he oversees work in the areas of security clearances, insider threat prevention and detection and big data analysis.
He most recently served as deputy assistant director for special security for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and prior to that was the program executive for security clearance reform at ODNI.
The U.S. Navy veteran worked in the private sector earlier in his career as national security programs director at SRA International for four years.
ExecutiveBiz sat down with Sowell to discuss next steps in the personnel security process, potential benefits of continuous evaluation and his views on how to solve problems surrounding clearances.
ExecutiveBiz: What is continuous evaluation and what is its role today in the public sector?
Charles Sowell: Continuous evaluation is part of the personnel security process. Today, the way the personnel security process works is you have an initial background investigation to assess your eligibility for access to classified information. If you stay in the clearance business at the top secret level, there’s a periodic reinvestigation every five years. And at the secret level, there’s a periodic reinvestigation every ten years. What continuous evaluation would do is evaluate certain data more frequently. Your date of birth and place of birth are pretty static, but things like your name and your address, your foreign travel, your criminal history, credit worthiness change more frequently. A continuous evaluation system would look at very similar data sources and new ones, such as publicly available electronic information, or PAEI, like an unlocked Facebook account or personal blog.
There have been a couple of pilots that have been done by the federal government. The department of the Army had a continuous evaluation pilot, which produced some very good information. Director Clapper is working on Security Executive Agent Directive as the Director of National Intelligence. Most people think of that post as the head of the intelligence community, but it also has a national role as the security executive agent. He’s responsible for all personnel security matters for people with clearances or people in sensitive positions. There is a lot of dialogue going on within the Department of Defense, the intelligence community, and the broader government, as well as some industry associations, looking at continuous evaluation and what a difference it could make.
The Office of Personnel Management is also a key player in the continuous evaluation background investigation process, both as it’s done today and how it would evolve. So there’s a lot going on in government. I would characterize that more in the policy development, the concept of operations development, and the pilot activity stage.
Different agencies have in place varying degrees of the parts of what will become a continuous evaluation system, and in today’s fiscal environment, what agencies should be doing is first and foremost looking at investments they’ve already made and not replacing those investments where it’s not necessary. Salient’s approach is to say, let’s work with agencies to identify the systems, the data, the policies, the processes that are already in place, and in a building block approach, simply plug and play the different pieces that an agency may not have in place to build a continuous evaluation initial operating capability.
We think that that approach, which is really that of a true systems integrator, recognizes that agencies have already made significant investments; helps agencies make use of their precious dollars in today’s fiscally‑constrained environment; and recognizes that all agencies are not in the same situation, that each agency has unique requirements, infrastructure, policies and workforces. As we move to consistent continuous evaluation capable for government, it’s consistent but certainly not a one size fits all approach.
Of the key good points of a continuous evaluation process is, if it’s implemented correctly it becomes a preventive system. For example, let’s say you noticed that one of your employees was finding themselves in bad financial situation, and over time, it was deteriorating. If you were observing that on a month‑by‑month basis, as opposed to once every five years, an agency has the opportunity to work with the individual to help fix those problems and potentially prevent them from finding themselves in a really bad situation where they would be compelled to even consider betraying their country at that point. It makes early intervention possible. The Army pilot, in particular, turned up a few cases where you could surface information about an individual’s cry for help. The Army found instances where they were able to intervene in potential suicides early and prevent the suicide from taking place by getting the individual help early. So it goes well beyond just the threat to classified information. It goes to helping our workforce be more productive and trusted members of the agency and of the government community.
On the private sector sides there are what I’ll call ‘investigative service providers.’ There are also a number of firms out there that provide data sources. There are other companies that provide information on just criminal activity. Then there are other companies that provide information on credit scores. So there are a lot of different companies that have different roles in the security process. Technology will be a critical part of whatever continuous evaluation becomes, but there will always need to be a human in the loop, either looking at serious issues from an investigative standpoint or looking at different data sources that may in some cases conflict with each other and determining the right answer.
Where does Salient fit into the continuous evaluation spectrum?
Salient’s role in developing continuous evaluation is working with all of those companies that are involved in the security process to help leverage the great skill sets that they’ve got and the great experience that they have and do it in a different way. We look at the tensile nature of continuous evaluation, and help them evaluate things that aren’t necessarily in their sweet spot, along with our government customers, like policies that drive continuous evaluation, the required communications with human resources and counterintelligence, and portions of government organizations that are outside of the security part of the organization. We look at firms like that as partners in this endeavor.
ExecutiveBiz: Five years down the line, where do you see continuous evaluation?
Charles Sowell: You’ll see more and more bad actors caught before they can create damage or death and destruction, at the worst. You will see more cases of people that could have gone much more bad if they were not caught earlier on, and the government working with those folks to make sure that their issues are resolved and they continue to remain productive members of the workforce. At about the five‑year mark, I think you will see continuous evaluation will have become a mainstream part of the security process.
What I think is still up in the air is whether or not continuous evaluation in the next five years will augment the periodic reinvestigation, supplement it, or replace it. It’s way too early to either make a recommendation for what that outcome would be or to predict what the outcome should be, because one of the key things to remember in the clearance process is, organizations deal with completely different populations of people. When you consider that the military is predominantly 18 to 24‑year‑olds, that’s a very, very different background history situation than somebody at another agency, like the Central Intelligence Agency, that has an older workforce. A lot more life happened and a lot more things happened in that life span than that could become problematic things like foreign travel, credit issues, things like that.