By Mark Hosenball
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. government will open the doors next week to a new agency, with stronger data protections, meant to shorten by many weeks the time it takes to vet government workers seeking "secret" and "top secret" security clearances.
The National Background Investigations Bureau will be headed by Charles Phalen, who has worked as a security executive at the CIA, the FBI and defense contractor Northrop Grumman, officials said on Thursday on a conference call with reporters.
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The bureau will replace an Office of Personnel Management (OPM) clearance system that was hit by hackers who stole potentially sensitive personal data on as many as 22 million people, including government employees and job applicants.
Phalen and OPM Director Beth Cobert said a top priority for the bureau will be shortening delays in the clearance process, which can hold up the hiring of government employees for months.
Cobert said that OPM figures show on average the time required to complete an investigation for a "secret" level security clearance is now 120 days; for a "top secret clearance, it is 170 days on average.
"These timelines are well too long," Phelan acknowledged.
Cobert said the new agency's goal would be to reduce the time for completing a "secret" clearance to 40 days and to cut the time for a "top secret" investigation to 80 days.
Officials said that individual government agencies, rather than the new central investigations bureau, would be responsible for social media checks of security clearance applicants.
Officials said that the new bureau would still depend on outside contractors, especially for hiring field investigators. The new agency will employ 2,500 government workers and 6,000 contract employees, officials said.
(Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Sandra Maler)