[Editor’s note: In the wake of the latest national security breach, in which classified Pentagon documents related to the war in Ukraine were disseminated online, Liberty Nation’s National Security Correspondent Dave Patterson digs into how America’s most sensitive materials are handled. Part one of this series can be read here.]
Some national security pundits feel there are too many high-level security clearances issued. Others argue Air National Guard Airman First Class Jack Teixeira – the young man who allegedly leaked some of the United States’ most closely kept secrets – was too young to have such clearance. In any case, the matter of security clearances has come front and center to the minds of Americans.
The first point, of course, raises the question of just how many high-level security clearances there should be. To give some context, the total number of government and contractor employees with security clearances, both with access currently and those eligible to get access, is approximately 2,500,000, according to the Fiscal Year 2019 Annual Report on Security Clearance Determinations, the latest report provided to Congress. The applications for security clearance are continuous. The Director for National Intelligence keeps statistics on those security clearance requests pending and those completed. “Despite the challenges posed by the pandemic, D/A (Executive Branch departments and agencies) work continued, and the three quarters’ average of pending and completed adjudications was relatively stable with an average of approximately 179,000 pending cases and an average of approximately 171,000 cases completed,” the February 2022 report for Fiscal Year 2020 stated.
Trump’s Management of Security Clearances
The backlog number has improved considerably since the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) was responsible for background checks and awarding security clearances. Following the breach of OPM security controls and the release to the public of sensitive clearance request paperwork for approximately two million clearance holders during the Obama administration, President Trump signed Executive Order 13467, moving the background investigations to the Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency. Around the time of initiating the transfer in April 2018, the backlog of unfinished background investigations was 725,000 compared to the backlog of less than 180,000 today.
The second opinion, that clearances are awarded to members of the US Armed Forces and contractors who are too young, misses the fact most individuals found guilty of leaking defense secrets were considerably older. Furthermore, we entrust combat using lethal weapons to the young, trusting them to acquit themselves effectively and honorably. Most do; very few don’t. Year over year, the number of Americans who violate the trust the US government has in them is small compared to how many holders of security clearances there are.
After the Teixeira incident, the Department of Defense (DOD) wasted no time taking bureaucratic action in a process-rich bureaucracy. “More immediately, though, the Pentagon is combing through distribution lists of people able to access and print classified material to determine if they should have that level of access,” Breaking Defense reported. It is easy to understand that with hundreds of thousands of individuals with access to classified information, those people no longer needing access could be overlooked.
Procedures Are in Place
However, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence has “formalized requirements to enroll the eligible national security population in continuous evaluation (CE), but has not assessed program performance. CE entails enrolling employees in IT (information technology) systems that conduct automated record checks on a frequent basis,” the Government Accountability Office explained. Despite the inclination to be hyper-critical of the security clearance process, the number of people and agencies involved is immense. “The Federal Register indicates there are over 430 departments, agencies, and sub-agencies in the federal government,” Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) opined in a written statement before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2015.
Consequently, when pundits and commentators ask why there are so many people with security clearances or question whether Airman First Class Teixeira should have had access to classified because he was only 21 years old, those questions expose a misunderstanding of the magnitude of the security clearance system. The security clearance domain is large and varied. The issue is not why unauthorized releases of classified information happen as frequently as they do. Instead, it is remarkable there aren’t more such breaches.
All opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Liberty Nation.
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