Newhouse News ServiceWith an estimated 717,000 people waiting for security clearances from the Pentagon alone, Washington is a city choking on secrecy.
February 6, 2001
Secrecy Logjam:By David Wood
Defense Department Has Huge Backlog for Getting Clearances
Never mind that the Cold War is long over, and that the CIA increasingly relies on "open" or non-secret sources like the Internet to figure out what's going on.
As the Bush administration is finding out, the federal government out of habit or inertia keeps on creating secrets: more than 8 million new ones a year, according to federal figures. More and more people need special clearances to see them. The result: a logjam of musty files, paperwork, frantic bureaucrats and creaky government.
The problem becomes acute when thousands of people sweep into town with a new president and all of them need immediate clearance.
According to Pentagon officials, defense investigators are working through a backlog of 400,000 Defense Department employees who need new or renewed background checks to make sure they can be entrusted with secrets. An additional 317,000 need clearances but haven't yet been able to submit their applications.
The delays recently caused Donald Rumsfeld, the normally poised secretary of defense, to erupt in public.
"The process of bringing people in with a new administration is a long and tortuous one," he complained last week, acknowledging that he was "grateful" for outgoing officials of the Clinton administration who agreed to help out until Rumsfeld's people get cleared.
Rumsfeld's top lieutenants and other senior officials get special expedited service. George W. Bush got a clearance simply by being elected president. But the vast majority of people have to stand in line. And it's a long, long line.
Theoretically, it would take the Defense Security Service's 1,200 investigators 279 years to clear the Pentagon's current backlog, according to the Pentagon's figures.
One practical effect is that many investigations simply don't get done. The Defense Security Service, for example, is required to reinvestigate people who hold "secret" clearances every 10 years, "top secret" holders every five years. In reality, many go 30 years with no reinvestigation.
Another effect is that investigations get sloppy, the congressional General Accounting Office found in a study last year.
Sixty-eight of the 80 people convicted of spying in the 1980s and 1990s had been cleared by investigators and held security clearances, the GAO found.
The Pentagon's gumshoes routinely overlooked questionable behavior on the part of some applicants, according to the GAO. Some were approved for top secret clearances even though no one checked their citizenship. Others got clearances despite criminal records, evidence of drug use and personal bankruptcies.
The demand for security clearances is insatiable, partly because more people need access to classified information for their jobs.
But a security clearance is a prime status symbol. In a city where knowledge is power, access is golden.
"You can lord it over somebody if you have a clearance and they don't," admits James M. Lindsay, a former White House national security official who is now a senior analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
Access to secrets helps define the contours of Washington's "social caste system," said Steven Aftergood, who studies government secrecy for the Federation of American Scientists.
Technically, people holding a clearance must not only pass a background check but also demonstrate a "need to know." Without such a need, their clearance is lifted, said Pentagon spokeswoman Susan Hansen.
People fight bitterly to hang on to their clearances, and with reason. Not having a clearance "can be a barrier" to getting a good job "because it takes so long to get cleared," said Philip A. Odeen, a vice president of TRW Inc., a major defense contractor.
Odeen said he has kept his clearances for 40 years because of his revolving service in government, in defense-related industry and on government panels such as the Defense Science Board.
Former Defense Secretary William S. Cohen still has his security clearance even though he's gone into business as a consultant, Pentagon spokesman Glenn Flood said.
John M. Deutch kept his security clearance for 32 months after he resigned as director of the Central Intelligence Agency. And that was 31 months after he admitted to major security breaches by keeping secrets on an unsecure computer at home.
President Bush joked last month that his father called regularly to find out what was in the daily presidential intelligence briefing.
"He loves to be brought up to date on what's going on," said the younger Bush. Apparently no one tells the former president he has no "need to know."
Another former defense secretary, Caspar W. Weinberger, pooh-poohed the value of secret clearances.
"I used to have all the clearances up through, oh, cosmic and all those marvelous titles, and I haven't really used them," he said in an interview. "I just read the newspapers and, you know, discount the usual 10 percent."
Some security classifications seem misplaced. For instance, the size of the intelligence budget is classified secret but is commonly estimated to be about $31 billion.
It is also well known in national security circles that the United States maintains "top secret" military bases in Israel, where combat gear is prepositioned in case of war, said William M. Arkin, an independent researcher and author.
Aftergood said information enters the secret realm because there is "no incentive in government to control or curtail it -- all the incentives push the other way."
Members of Congress won "top secret" clearances after intelligence agency abuses in the 1970s convinced them to tighten their oversight role. Like the president, these elected officials do not undergo background checks; they are deemed trustworthy by virtue of having been elected, an FBI spokeswoman said.
But Capitol Hill has long been suspected by Pentagon and CIA officials as the source of secrecy leaks.
As a result, some sensitive documents are classified as "black" or "special access" programs. Aftergood estimates that about $15 billion worth of Pentagon programs are "black," meaning they are listed in budget documents under code words if they are listed at all.
"I can't help but think that the reason for the growth of black programs is to keep the information from the gaggle of people on the Hill who do have clearances," Arkin said.
One practical effect of this classification came last year when the Clinton administration was able to squash a budding congressional debate over the size of the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile.
Pentagon officials refused to allow a Senate review of nuclear warfighting plans, which now-retired Sen. Robert Kerrey, D-Neb., said was necessary to judge whether there were enough weapons or too many. The war plans are classified "top secret special access."
How can the Senate, Kerrey demanded last fall, "provide the policy guidance that is needed when we are not given the information we need?"
Kerrey retired in January without getting an answer.