Federal agency officials understand the need to limit the number of security clearances they issue, but without regular reviews they can’t be sure they are doing that, according to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report.

(Alex Wong/Getty Images) (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

The title of the document, scheduled for release at a Senate hearing Wednesday, summarizes GAO’s recommendation: “Actions Needed to Help Ensure Correct Designations of National Security Positions.”

There were 4.9 million federal employees and contractors eligible to hold security clearances in 2012.  Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), the ranking members the Senate and House homeland security committees respectively, have attributed problems with security clearances to the large number of positions that are classified.

“Today, there are nearly 5 million individuals with a security clearance.  Five million,” said Sen.  Jon Tester (D-Mont.), chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee on the federal workforce. “And there are no indications that number will decrease any time soon. But it only takes one individual to slip through the cracks.”

The report said while a regulation proposed by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Office of Personnel Management “requires agencies to conduct a one-time reassessment of position designation within 24 months of the final rule’s effective date, it does not require a periodic reassessment of positions’ need for access to classified information.”

Because reviews are not done consistently, GAO said, “executive branch agencies cannot have assurances that they are keeping the number of positions that require security clearances to a minimum.”

Tester cited the concerns of employee representatives who worry that the proposed regulation, along with a recent federal appeals court decision, could allow the government to classify many positions as sensitive, which would deprive them of certain employee rights.

Tester and Sen. Rob Portman (Ohio), the top Republican on the subcommittee, have urged the agencies to postpone the regulation “until the matter has been fully and publicly aired, and questions about its true scope, including the estimated costs and number of impacted federal workers, are answered.”


Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP

Columnist Joe Davidson covers the federal government in the Federal Insider. It replaced the Federal Diary, which focused on federal employees. Davidson previously was an assistant city editor at The Washington Post and a Washington and foreign correspondent with The Wall Street Journal, where he covered federal agencies and political campaigns.