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Vol. LXI, No. 4
February 20, 2009
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Some 2,300 NIH’ers May Lose Access to Workplace

On the front page...

While most of the people who work at NIH have complied with the process of obtaining new ID badges, which have required background or “suitability” checks, there remains a cohort of roughly 2,300 individuals who have not yet jumped all the hurdles. In the not too distant future, these folks may face a three-strikes situation before they will find their cards disabled, said Richie Taffet, acting director of the Division of Personnel Security and Access Control.

The announcement that there was such a large population of noncompliant workers came at the December meeting of CABS, the community advisory board for security, which has met in the wake of 9/11 to manage community concerns about dramatic increases in security requirements at NIH.

Continued...


CABS members want to be sure no badges are disabled, however, until NIH does all it can to assure that the badge-acquisition process is user-friendly and easily understandable.

Wait, There’s More!

So, you complied with all the HSPD-12 rules, filled out your e-QIP, got your new badge and received written certification that, security-wise, you’re cool. Good to go, right?

Not so fast. The cool people have one more bridge to cross before HSPD-12 reaches ultimate fulfillment—the issuance of new “smart” cards.

Everyone who works at NIH will be receiving new ID badges, starting this year, said Richie Taffet, acting director of the Division of Personnel Security and Access Control. That means new photos for everyone and sophisticated new cards that will be used not only for identity and physical access, but also for computer access.

“We just ordered the first batch of the new HSPD-12 smart cards,” said Taffet, “and we’re waiting for delivery. We want to test the first batch (of 2,500 cards) to be sure they work in Baltimore, Montana, North Carolina, Bldg. 10, etc. When we are sure that they work, I will place a very large order.”

Taffet is directing batches of 100 of the new cards to all corners of NIH, to be sure they enable proper access. If they pass the test, he’ll pull the trigger on 35,000 more.

“They will require that you have a new photo taken,” he said, “but there will be no new background check.”

As 2008 wound to a close, some 3,000 people were believed to have failed to meet the requirements of HSPD-12 (Homeland Security Presidential Directive 12), which mandates suitability investigations of all employees, whether new hires or old hands. But as Taffet’s staff has analyzed the data, using an improved version of the NIH Enterprise Directory (NED), it appeared that “many of the names are duplicates or triplicates.” Further searches of the NED system and global email directory indicate that many of the people simply can’t be located. “Chances are they are not here. They were once here and are now gone,” he said.

Taffet says the number of noncompliant people is closer to 2,300. “We don’t think that these people are ignoring us,” he observed. “They just don’t think of [compliance] as normal processing.”

Neither does he believe that their failure to comply is some kind of organized revolt or expression of conscientious objection. “There is no sense of that. These people come from all over NIH, from Montana to Baltimore to North Carolina to Bethesda. And they come from all employment categories and grade levels, from FTEs to contractors, fellows, Title 42, etc. It’s a snapshot of NIH, really.”

Taffet suspects three causes of noncompliance: the workers don’t regard the email notices as serious, and delete them as bureaucratic trifles because the subject line seems so mundane; they open the emails and get frustrated by the homework involved, such as listing old addresses and past employers; or they fill out the documentation, but fail to hit the “submit” button at the end.

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“Maybe the reason that so many people have not yet complied is that there is no April 15th for HSPD-12, like there is for the IRS.”

These folks were warned that, starting Jan. 1, those who don’t complete the e-QIP (Electronic Questionnaires for Investigations Processing) forms will eventually have their badges “turned off” or deactivated.

“We don’t actually take the badge away, we just deactivate it, or suspend it,” said Taffet. A suspended card won’t work to open perimeter gates or doors anywhere at NIH.

“We will go out three times to those who have not complied,” explained Taffet. “The first email notice will give them 7 days to comply. The second notice will give them another 7 days. The third and final notice will give them 7 more days, and warn that the badge will be deactivated. I hope we never get to that stage. I hope people realize the importance of completing that form.”

Taffet said DPSAC will try to use a catchier subject line in the warning emails, to draw more attention. “We expect a pretty good response,” he said. “If necessary, we will go to the executive officers with a list of people, and ask them to persuade the employees to comply.”

Most NIH employees, around 73 percent of the workforce, have the lowest level of security review, going back only 5 years and asking 14 questions, said Taffet. These are “non-sensitive” positions.

Another 24 percent of employees fill out a “public trust” form—these are for positions that might conceivably be prone to influence or potential harm. The background check in this category extends back 7 years and includes a few more questions than the lowest level.

The highest level, or national security positions, is appropriate for only about 3 percent of the workforce, or about 1,000 people, Taffet said.The questionnaire is more expansive and looks 10 years back into an individual’s past.

Taffet insists “people should not really worry about filling out the e-QIP forms. It’s highly unlikely that it would affect your job if you’ve been here awhile.” In the event that a background check involves an issue from someone’s past, there is an adjudicative process in place for explaining past indiscretions, he said, and an appeals process on top of that if an individual feels his or her case was improperly adjudicated.

Taffet has a team of 30 specialists dedicated to the task of adjudication, which involves “taking a look at the whole person. We all realize that history changes things. So you might have burnt your draft card back in the 1960s—how relevant is that today to a scientist who has done decades of distinguished work in the intervening years? We also look at the relevance of an offense to a person’s job.”

If someone is denied a position, “you can appeal,” said Taffet. “You will be told why you were denied and will be given a chance to refute the evidence. OPM mandates the appeals process.”

Taffet emphasizes that suitability investigations of federal hires has been a fact of life for decades, since President Eisenhower issued an executive order on the subject back in 1953. Further, anyone who fills out a federal job application sees the clear message on all announcements: “This position is subject to a background investigation.”

“It shouldn’t come as a surprise to people,” he said. “For the past 56 years, it’s been the rule of the land.”

He said DPSAC has computers on hand for people who lack access to PCs to fill out the electronic forms; his staff will walk customers through the process.

Taffet concluded, “Maybe the reason that so many people have not yet complied is that there is no April 15th for HSPD-12, like there is for the IRS. Everyone knows that their taxes are due on Apr. 15, but we don’t have something similar. I think that people [who have not yet complied] just forgot about it somehow. They didn’t see it as important. But it’s a condition of employment. No one that I know of has ever said, ‘No, I’m not complying.’ I think it’s just human nature.” NIHRecord Icon

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