Number of Security Clearances Soars

The number of persons who held security clearances for access to classified information last year exceeded 4.2 million — far more than previously estimated — according to a new intelligence community report to Congress (pdf).

The report, which was required by the FY2010 intelligence authorization act, provides the first precise tally of clearances held by federal employees and contractors that has ever been produced.  The total figure as of last October 1 was 4,266,091 cleared persons. See “Report on Security Clearance Determinations for Fiscal Year 2010,” Office of the Director of National Intelligence, September 2011.

In 2009, the Government Accountability Office had told Congress that about 2.4 million people held clearances “excluding some of those with clearances who work in areas of national intelligence.”  (“More Than 2.4 Million Hold Security Clearances,” Secrecy News, July 29, 2009).  But even with a generous allowance for hundreds of thousands of additional intelligence personnel, that estimate somehow missed more than a million clearances.

Likewise, one of the many startling findings in the 2010 Washington Post series (and 2011 book) “Top Secret America” by Dana Priest and William M. Arkin, was that “An estimated 854,000 people, nearly 1.5 times as many people as live in Washington, D.C., hold top-secret security clearances.”

But remarkably, that too was a significant underestimate, according to the new report.  In actual fact, as of October 2010 there were 1,419,051 federal employees and contractors holding Top Secret clearances.

As high as the newly determined total number of clearances is, it may not be the highest number ever.  In the last decade of the cold war, a comparable or greater number of persons seems to have had security clearances.  In those years the size of the uniformed military was much larger than today, and a large fraction of its members were routinely granted clearances.  Thus, as of 1983, there were approximately 4.2 million clearances, according to 1985 testimony (pdf) from the GAO.  But that was an estimate, not a measurement, and the actual number might have been higher (or lower).  By 1993, the post-cold war number had declined to around 3.2 million clearances, according to another GAO report (pdf) from 1995.

The unexpectedly large number of security clearances today can presumably be attributed to several related factors:  the surge in military and intelligence spending over the past decade, increased government reliance on cleared contractors, and intensive classification activity that continues today.

9 Responses to “Number of Security Clearances Soars”

  1. Tim September 20, 2011 at 3:07 PM #

    I’d suspect the ‘surge’ in security clearances is also attributable, in part, to the ease with which investigations on new applicants are completed. Years ago, “investigating” someone actually entailed leg-work & hard copy transcripts of criminal, financial, property & medical records, nearly all of which are now a ‘mouse-click’ away.

  2. Maria September 20, 2011 at 4:31 PM #

    @Tim: Do you think technology and access to information has also made it more difficult to gain a clearance? After all, it’s not very difficult to discover skeletons in someone’s closet nowadays.

  3. Jeremy September 20, 2011 at 4:57 PM #


    How did you get the figure of 4.2 million total and 1.4 Top Secret clearances? The report’s numbers are hard to figure because they conflate government employees and contractors and the same numbers appear in more than one category.

  4. Steven Aftergood September 20, 2011 at 5:47 PM #

    The total number of clearances is the sum of three categories: federal employees, contractors, and others (which refers to those whose status is unknown). The data for all three categories can be found in the table on page 3 of the report. So, for example, the total number of Top Secret clearances is the sum of 666,008 (for federal employees) plus 524,990 (for contractors) plus 228,053 (for others) — which equals 1,419,051. Similarly, the total for all clearances is the sum of the Top Secret and the Confidential/Secret clearances for all three categories, using the data from the same table on page 3.

  5. Tim September 21, 2011 at 11:17 AM #

    Maria, I’m *sure* it makes getting & keeping a clearance more difficult. While I suspect much of people’s “secret online lives” isn’t necessarily disqualifying (i.e. racist remarks, infidelities, etc.), people now routinely establish all kinds of close foreign relationships with people they don’t really *know*, they “anonymously” discuss their recreational drug use, they threaten people, and of course there’s the omnipresent & quasi-legal ‘adult’ sites everywhere.

    All that “stuff”, once posted online, is there & traceable FOREVER.

    It will never “go away”, and will always be attributable the person who wrote it. Any investigator worth their salt will quickly find it.

  6. Jason Luedeman September 21, 2011 at 11:37 AM #

    I’m not sure whether it’s made it easier to get a clearance, but it definitely has made it easier for the investigator to get the information that he needs to do his job.

    It took me roughly 5-6 months from start to final approval to get my TS/SCI and the investigators I spoke with had information I never knew existed.

    I’m willing to bet that it will make it harder to retain one as again, once something is on the internet, it’s there forever.

    Personally, I think that the standards should be tougher as from what I’ve seen, secret level clearances are handed out like like candy, especially just before a deployment and people who don’t necessarily need them, get them.

  7. Andrew September 23, 2011 at 8:52 AM #

    What if a researcher, with no government funding or support, stumbles upon the solution to a national security scientific problem? Or what is the issue with exchange and foreign students studying the principles of scientific knowledge, while at the same time being viewed as non-citizens(not eligible for a clearance), and possessing the basic knowledge for what they are being denied?

  8. Tim September 23, 2011 at 11:40 AM #

    “What if a researcher, with no government funding or support, stumbles upon the solution to a national security scientific problem?”

    Like all the German balllistic missile & nuclear fission scientists we “met” in the summer of 1945?

    Welcome to America, my good friend!!!

  9. Andrew September 24, 2011 at 9:11 PM #

    Not the ballistic missile and nuclear fission scientists, but more like my situation. For instance, MIT students broke the code to GPS, and there must be other instances similar to this one. I might have accidentally stumbled upon “something” Through trial and error, but I am not mentioning it here. However, no laws were broken.