Number of Security Clearances Soars

By September 20, 2011

The number of persons who held security clearances for access to classified information last year exceeded 4.2 million — far more than previously estimated — according to a new intelligence community report to Congress (pdf).

The report, which was required by the FY2010 intelligence authorization act, provides the first precise tally of clearances held by federal employees and contractors that has ever been produced.  The total figure as of last October 1 was 4,266,091 cleared persons. See “Report on Security Clearance Determinations for Fiscal Year 2010,” Office of the Director of National Intelligence, September 2011.

In 2009, the Government Accountability Office had told Congress that about 2.4 million people held clearances “excluding some of those with clearances who work in areas of national intelligence.”  (“More Than 2.4 Million Hold Security Clearances,” Secrecy News, July 29, 2009).  But even with a generous allowance for hundreds of thousands of additional intelligence personnel, that estimate somehow missed more than a million clearances.

Likewise, one of the many startling findings in the 2010 Washington Post series (and 2011 book) “Top Secret America” by Dana Priest and William M. Arkin, was that “An estimated 854,000 people, nearly 1.5 times as many people as live in Washington, D.C., hold top-secret security clearances.”

But remarkably, that too was a significant underestimate, according to the new report.  In actual fact, as of October 2010 there were 1,419,051 federal employees and contractors holding Top Secret clearances.

As high as the newly determined total number of clearances is, it may not be the highest number ever.  In the last decade of the cold war, a comparable or greater number of persons seems to have had security clearances.  In those years the size of the uniformed military was much larger than today, and a large fraction of its members were routinely granted clearances.  Thus, as of 1983, there were approximately 4.2 million clearances, according to 1985 testimony (pdf) from the GAO.  But that was an estimate, not a measurement, and the actual number might have been higher (or lower).  By 1993, the post-cold war number had declined to around 3.2 million clearances, according to another GAO report (pdf) from 1995.

The unexpectedly large number of security clearances today can presumably be attributed to several related factors:  the surge in military and intelligence spending over the past decade, increased government reliance on cleared contractors, and intensive classification activity that continues today.

Categories: Secrecy