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Nearly 5 million people are cleared for access to our government’s protected information. That’s certainly a lot, considering Executive Order 12968 instructs agencies to keep clearances for access to classified information to a minimum. Rep. Bennie G. Thompson, the ranking member of the House Committee on Homeland Security, asked the Government Accountability Office to shed some light on how the clearance designations were made. GAO’s answer? Inconsistently and sometimes, incorrectly. But what’s missing from the GAO’s recommendations for a more effective and efficient security clearance system is the role of overclassification.
As Rep. Thompson told Federal Computer Week, “while demanding unnecessary clearances could lead to a waste of precious resources, it could also unfortunately be a signal of a less open government.” Thompson is right—a better system for security clearances is about far more than money. Excessive secrecy, or more specifically over- and unnecessary classification, is the buried lede of many of this summer’s news stories. Such misuses of classification threaten national security because they pull protections away from information that is properly classified and merits protection. The current outrage surrounding national security leaks is focused on investigating individuals, while it should be looking at the growing secrecy system. Targeting unnecessary classification will help reduce the size of the secrecy system and make it more manageable.
The GAO Report identifies the lack of a clear policy for determining requirements for security clearances for civilian positions. The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) has taken on the challenge of who-gets-to-know-what, though Executive Order 13467 instructs the DNI to create the guidelines for national security clearances. In the absence of a clear policy from the DNI, agencies have been using the OPM tool for determining the sensitivity level of positions, and extrapolating from that determination to assign a security clearance. The GAO’s report finds that this method results in inconsistent assignments and unnecessarily high-level investigations that result in excessive costs. In fiscal year 2011, the Department of Defense spent $787 million on clearances and the Department of Homeland Security spent $57 million. Add that on to the growing tab for government secrecy. It costs money to protect information that should be accessible, and it also costs money for federal employees to access that information when a clearance investigation is required.
The OPM tool can only go as far as determining the sensitivity level of a position, however. The GAO report recommends that the DNI issue a clear policy for determining if positions need a clearance, require that agencies review and revise the designation of their positions, and work with OPM to develop a new tool for assigning clearance level. But any tool created without first addressing overclassification will be less effective in minimizing the number of clearances needed. The assignment of security clearances is intended to take into account the potential damage to national security that unauthorized disclosure would cause. As the DNI and OPM join in creating these new policies, they should take a deeper look at what overclassification really means for government security, efficiency, and accountability.