The executive branch does not have clear policies for when a civilian federal worker needs a security clearance, according to a new report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released this month. In the 54-page report, the GAO examines both executive branch policies around when a particular position requires a security clearance and how agencies review if a position continues to require a security clearance. The researchers found that while “agency officials were aware of the need to keep the number of security clearances to a minimum,” they “were not always required to conduct periodic reviews and validations of the security clearance needs of existing positions.”

To determine whether a position requires a security clearance and in turn the type of background investigation that will be required for potential position holders, agencies use a tool called the Position Designation of National Security and Public Trust Positions created by the Office of Personnel Management. However, the Director of National Intelligence, in charge of developing consistent policies relating to the security clearance process, had no role in the tool’s development and thus “agency officials [researchers] met expressed mixed views on the effectiveness of the tool for national security positions.”

Executive Order 12968 requires agencies to minimize the number of positions with security clearance and, importantly, to terminate that clearance when it is no longer needed. However, GAO investigators found that the DNI “has not issued policies and procedures for agencies to review and revise or validate the existing clearance requirements” in executive agencies. The end result was that agencies reviewed by the GAO varied in the practices towards reviewing the security clearance needs of federal civilian positions.

The issue of appropriate security clearance assignment is not only about limiting access to sensitive information; it also has to do with cost. The costs of background investigations are significant, so overdetermination of a position’s security clearance occurs, it has real implications for the bottom line. For example, the cost of a top secret clearance investigation conducted by OPM in 2012 is twenty times greater than that of a secret level clearance — $4,005 vs. $260.

In the report, the GAO recommended that DNI and OPM issue new clear policies and procedures for federal agencies regarding the determination of a position’s need for a security clearance and to reflect that policy in an update of the position designation tool. Furthermore, the responsible authorities should also develop new guidelines regarding the periodic review of the security designation of existing federal civilian positions.


Mike Jones is a researcher, writer, and analyst on national and international security. He lives in the DC area.

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Mike Jones is a researcher, writer, and analyst on national and international security. He lives in the DC area.