Security-Cleared Population Continues to Shrink

06.30.16 | 2 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

The number of people with security clearances for access to classified information dropped in 2015 for the second year in a row, according to a new report to Congress from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

The total number of security-cleared government employees and contractors decreased by 5.9 percent in FY 2015 down to 4,249,053. That follows a 12.3 percent reduction in FY2014, from a recent peak of 5.1 million clearances in 2013. At the beginning of FY2016, there were 1.36 million persons with Top Secret clearances.

See the 2015 Annual Report on Security Clearance Determinations, Office of the Director of National Intelligence, June 2016.

Continuing reductions in the size of the security-cleared population should result in reduced costs, along with more focused and effective use of finite security resources. A smaller security clearance system may also exercise indirect pressure on national security classification policy in favor of reduced secrecy since there will be fewer persons authorized to classify or to handle classified information. For the same reason, however, some officials and contractors are concerned that the availability of fewer cleared individuals could make it harder for them to “surge” to fulfill emerging classified requirements.

“The majority of decreases [in the number of security clearances] resulted from Department of Defense’s successful implementation of data quality initiatives,” said the new ODNI report, apparently referring to DoD efforts to standardize and improve database management.

“However, some agencies indicated that decreases in their overall population were the result of efforts across the USG to review and validate whether an employee or contractor still requires access to classified information.”

The new report also discussed the time it takes for various agencies to process security clearance requests.

“The IC continues to face timeliness 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 report said.

Regular reporting on the operation of the government-wide security clearance system was not performed prior to the Obama Administration (though GAO produced valuable investigative reports over the years). Annual reports on the security clearance system were first required by Congress in the Intelligence Authorization Act for FY 2010.