The White House achieved its goal of reducing the security-cleared population by 10 percent, according to White House budget data released this week. Last March the Office of Management and Budget released its interagency report on the security clearance process, prompted after the Washington Navy Yard shooting. That report made several key recommendations, including a move from periodic reinvestigations to continuous monitoring; better access to law enforcement records; and an overall reduction in the number of cleared personnel.
The security-cleared population sat at 5.1 million the last time figures were reported (Oct. 2013). A 10 percent reduction would mean 4.6 million cleared personnel, although the reduction would have been taken from 2014’s population.
How many is too many?
In 2013, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper called the number of individuals with clearances ‘too high.’ In a memo to government agencies, Clapper expressed his concern with the growing number of individuals with access to classified information, particularly TS/SCI clearances.
Others were reluctant to place blame for clearance issues on the number, but called for reforms to focus on process. The Intelligence and National Security Alliance Security Reform Policy Council urged the incorporation of an ‘enhanced Periodic Reinvestigation’ in their white paper focused on clearance reform. They also pushed for advanced technology and better information-sharing between agencies.
Kathy Pherson, Vice Chair of the Security Reform Policy Council at INSA, cautioned against those who say the answer is simply to reduce the number of clearances. She called that kind of thinking ‘taking the eye off of the ball.’ Instead, she noted that we should be “proud, as a nation, that we have five million people who are helping to defend the nation’s classified information.” The more the focus is on cutting personnel, the more contractors, in particular, are forced to begin playing games in the acquisition process, to keep cleared personnel available for contracts, she noted.
The FY 2016 budget makes no recommendations for future reductions in cleared personnel, or requirements for another round of desk audits. It does say that pilots of continuous monitoring will expand to be a Government-wide practice, but it sets no deadlines for completion. The budget also referenced increasing agencies’ access to information technology, which will better enable data sharing between the Federal Government and local agencies (for things such as police records and criminal histories).
Reducing the number of clearances increases the demand for those who already have them, and also increases a government contractor or agency’s incentive for keeping clearances up-to-date. The cost of a top secret security clearance investigation averages nearly $4,000, according to OMB. The current budget climate will further emphasize reducing the number of new clearance investigations needed.