Pentagon security clearances drop 20 percent in 3 years

Shutterstock image: shadowed hacker.

The number of Defense Department employees and contractors with security clearances has dropped by 20 percent over the last three years, according to data published by the Office of Management and Budget. The sharp decline reflects a concerted effort by the Obama administration to tighten the background-check process in the aftermath of leaks of classified information by Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning, as well as the 2013 Navy Yard shooting by an IT contractor with a  security clearance. 

As of the beginning of 2016, 3.7 million DOD personnel held clearances – and with it access to classified information – according to figures released in a quarterly interagency report on security clearance reform. That is compared to 4.6 million people with clearances in fiscal 2013 and 4 million in fiscal 2014. 

Having less security clearances saves the government money and allows for "more focused use of security resources," wrote Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists' Project on Government Secrecy, in a blog post on the data.

"The DOD data indicate that even now, following the reductions in recent years, there are 1.4 million persons who hold clearances but do not currently require access to classified information," Aftergood told FCW in an email. "So it appears that there is still plenty of slack in the system, and room for further reductions." 

Retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told FCW the drop in clearance holders doesn't necessarily mean a drop in those who pose what the government terms an "insider threat" of leaking information. The Snowden leaks, for example, do not mean that the government should grant fewer clearances but that it should be more careful in doing so, he added.

President Obama's 2011 executive order set up an interagency process for improving the government's guarding of classified information. Officials from the White House and intelligence agencies, among others, are responsible for setting government-wide goals for improvement. 

Central to the new security clearance regime is developing systems that continuously evaluate those with security clearances for red flags in behavior -- a drunk driving charge or spike in debt, for example. The progress report said DOD had carried out a continuous evaluation pilot covering 225,000 people.

Charles Allen, a former CIA and Department of Homeland Security official, told FCW that the continuous evaluation approach was the right one but that officials should implement it more quickly and with the latest technology.

Developing new IT capabilities is one of the "overall risks and challenges" for the security clearance reform initiative, according to the progress report. 

One manifestation of the security clearance challenge is that moving a contractor who works at one intelligence agency to another can be a cumbersome process, added Allen, now a principal at The Chertoff Group.

For some, however, there are potential pitfalls to increasingly automating the process. 

"The unintended consequence that I often worry about as we add more and more technological measures for monitoring data and data access is that people will start to think it's not their job anymore to stop anomalies," said Neal Ziring, technical director at NSA's Information Assurance Directorate, at a conference last year.

After a massive hack hit the Office of Personnel Management's security clearance database, the White House in January announced a new entity for managing clearances overseen by OPM but built by DOD. Pentagon IT officials would be allotted $95 million in Obama's fiscal 2017 budget request to set up the background check agency and try to protect it from another intrusion.

About the Author

Sean Lyngaas is an FCW staff writer covering defense, cybersecurity and intelligence issues. Prior to joining FCW, he was a reporter and editor at Smart Grid Today, where he covered everything from cyber vulnerabilities in the U.S. electric grid to the national energy policies of Britain and Mexico. His reporting on a range of global issues has appeared in publications such as The Atlantic, The Economist, The Washington Diplomat and The Washington Post.

Lyngaas is an active member of the National Press Club, where he served as chairman of the Young Members Committee. He earned his M.A. in international affairs from The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, and his B.A. in public policy from Duke University.

Click here for previous articles by Lyngaas, or connect with him on Twitter: @snlyngaas.


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