Too many people with security clearances, but cuts could help some feds, hurt others

Joe Davidson
Columnist March 20

There’s broad agreement that Uncle Sam needs to tighten up the way he allows federal employees, military personnel and contractors to have access to government secrets. No one argues that more than 5 million people with security clearances is too few.

If that sounds like a lot, it is, especially when only 60 percent of them have access to classified information, according to a report submitted to President Obama this week by the Office of Management and Budget and other agencies. That means about 2 million people hold, or are eligible to hold, security clearances but apparently do not need them.

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. View Archive

“Executive branch-wide policy directs agencies to minimize the number of employees and contractors with eligibility for access to classified information to the minimum required to conduct agency functions,” said the report, known as the Suitability and Security Processes Review. “Still, the number of clearance-eligible personnel is considerable, exceeding 5.1 million including civilian and military employees and contractors in Fiscal Year 2013.”

Despite the policy, agencies have had little incentive to limit the number of security clearances. The post-Sept. 11, 2001, climate has led to a continuing increase in security measures, sometimes excessive.

“We have to acknowledge the fact that too many people have security clearances . . . because we tend to over-classify information in our government,” said Sen. Tom Coburn (Okla.), the ranking Republican on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

The mood is shifting.

Reducing the number of people with security clearances and implementing other measures seems likely now.

There is general bipartisan congressional support for security clearance reform, if not agreement on the details. Rep. Stephen F. Lynch (Mass.), the ranking Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform federal workforce subcommittee, said the reports “again highlight the significant lapses in our security clearance framework. . . . Hopefully, we can now achieve bipartisan support” for the kind of reforms he proposed in pending legislation.

Overall, cutting the number of clearances is probably a good thing. But on the individual level, it will vary. Some people might be happy to get rid of a clearance they don’t need and the baggage that comes with it. For others, losing a clearance could really hurt their careers.

Reports released this week by OMB and the Defense Department call for cutting the number of security clearance holders. OMB says this would “minimize risk of access to sensitive information and reduce cost.” The Pentagon’s independent review of the September’s Washington Navy Yard shooting says: “As a starting point, DoD should seek to make a 10 percent cut in the number of positions that require access to material classified as Secret.”

The cuts should start with the 2 million people who have security clearances but do not have access to classified information. A footnote in the OMB report says they might have a “potential need for immediate access to classified information, but may not have access until the need arises.”

That footnote amounts to a loophole for agencies to place a classification level on employees who do not come close to classified information. The American Federation of Government Employees has fought for two workers who, in the name of national security, were denied employment protections available to other civil servants. Yet, one was a low-level Defense Department accounting technician and the other was a grocery clerk on a military base. Nonetheless, their gigs were classified as “national security sensitive.”

One worker was fired and the other was demoted after falling into debt following family problems — a death or divorce. The kind of financial issues many Americans encounter is like a serious disease for people with security clearances. The theory is that they might be susceptible to bribes and, therefore, could be a security risk. The two workers were not allowed to appeal personnel actions against them to the Merit Systems Protection Board because of their national security-sensitive classifications.

Nicole A. Smith, a lawyer at Tully Rinckey, represents other clients with security clearance problems. Some of them had their clearances revoked or threatened even though they “never touched a piece of classified information,” said Smith, who formerly was a security clearance background investigator on contract to the Office of Personnel Management.

The Federal Managers Association represents many Defense Department employees with security clearances. Noting that initial investigations and reinvestigations for clearances are expensive, FMA President Patricia Niehaus said that “taking another look at who really needs a clearance is simply exercising fiscal responsibility.”

But that look could result in a disadvantaged personal financial situation for some workers.

Cutting the number of clearances could hurt job opportunities in certain cases, said Derrick Dortch, president of Diversa Group, a federal employment consulting practice in the District.

“In this market, a clearance is everything,” Dortch said.

Without a clearance, a job candidate is less employable and an employee might be less likely to win a key assignment or be promoted.

Support staff might be among those who lose clearances if clearance numbers are cut. “That could affect how much you can contribute to a mission,” Dortch said. And that can affect their livelihoods.

Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP

Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.

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