Nuclear Weapons

Number of Security Cleared Personnel Grew in 2012

04.15.13 | 3 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

The number of people who are cleared for access to classified information continued to rise in 2012 to more than 4.9 million, according to a new annual report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.  This is only the third official tally of government-wide security clearance activity ever prepared, and it is the largest reported to date.

The total number of cleared personnel as of October 1, 2012 was 4,917,751.  Although the number of contractors who held a clearance declined in 2012, the number of eligible government employees grew at a faster rate, yielding a net increase of 54,199 clearances, or 1.1 percent, from the year before.

It is possible that there were more security-cleared Americans at some points during the Cold War, when there was a larger standing military with more cleared military personnel than there are today.  But until 2010, no comprehensive account of the size of the security clearance system had ever been produced.  So the new 4.9 million figure is the largest official figure ever published.

A 2009 report from the Government Accountability Office had estimated that 2.4 million people held clearances, excluding some intelligence agency employees.  But even allowing for one or two hundred thousand cleared intelligence personnel, this turned out to underestimate the case by nearly 50%.  A 1995 GAO report presented an estimate of 3.2 million persons as of 1993.

(Strictly speaking, the new ODNI report does not present data on the number of clearances but rather on the number of people who have been investigated and deemed “eligible” for a clearance, regardless of whether or not they have been granted access to classified information in fact. In addition to a security clearance, an individual is also supposed to have a “need to know” particular classified information in order to gain access to it.)

During 2012, the CIA denied 4.9% of the clearance applications that it reviewed, the report indicated, while NRO denied 5.9% and NSA denied 5.7%.  Several of the intelligence agencies reported that they had individual security clearance investigations that had remained open in excess of one year.

“The IC faces challenges in clearing individuals with unique or critical skills — such as highly desirable language abilities — who often have significant foreign associations that may take additional time to investigate and adjudicate,” the new report said.

The report notes that it was prepared in fulfillment of a requirement in the 2010 intelligence authorization act.  It does not mention the fact that the DNI asked Congress to cancel that requirement last year.

The DNI’s request to eliminate the report was initially approved by the Senate Intelligence Committee (as first noted by Marcy Wheeler of the Emptywheel blog). But then several public interest groups wrote to ask the House and Senate Intelligence Committees to preserve the annual reporting requirement, arguing that it provided unique public insight into the size and operation of the security clearance system. The Committees concurred, and the reporting requirement was retained.

In the absence of similar public attention and intervention, another intelligence community report to Congress on proliferation of weapons of mass destruction was discontinued at the DNI’s request, to the dismay of students of arms control.

A pending change to the security clearance process is intended to encourage mental health counseling, but some say it may generate new confusion, reported Josh Gerstein in Politico today.

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