By Joe Davidson
When the Government Accountability Office was looking at security clearance issues, it found a curious situation among Defense Department agencies: Some have more people eligible for clearances than they have employees.
In fact, almost a million contractors are in the Pentagon’s system but are not on the payroll, according to the department.
This “suggests that DOD’s clearance eligibility totals may be inaccurate,”the GAO said in its typically understated way. “Specifically, GAO found that the number of eligible employees exceeded the total number of employees in five DOD components.”
As the GAO report added, inaccurate data “hampers DOD’s ability to reduce its number of clearance holders to minimize risk and reduce costs to the government.”
It also raises more questions about the need for 5.1 million people, across the government, to be eligible for security clearances.
In October, James R. Clapper, the director of national intelligence, told security officials “to review and validate whether each individual within their agency identified as eligible for access to classified information still required eligibility,” said Eugene Barlow, a spokesman for Clapper. “As a result of the validation process, agencies have responded with significant reduction of clearances across their agency population.”
That process is all the more important, yet all the more difficult, if there are loads of essentially ghost workers floating around — those who are deemed eligible to hold security clearances but who are not working. By the end of this year, Barlow added, “our objective is to reduce the total number of individuals identified as having an active security clearance by at least 10 percent.”
The worst offender in the GAO study was the Marine Corps. It claimed to have 355,030 active-duty personnel eligible to gain access to classified information in fiscal 2013. But its total number of active-duty personnel was 229,537, meaning that somehow 155 percent of its active-duty folks were eligible for security clearances.
Next on the list was the Navy, where 125 percent of the civilian workforce was eligible, and the Army, where 120 percent of the civilian staff could see the secrets.
How can this be?
“DOD officials said this discrepancy could be because DOD’s eligibility database is not consistently updated when an employee separates,” the GAO reported.
Those updates must be pretty far behind.
Navy Cmdr. Amy Derrick-Frost, a Pentagon spokesperson, said by e-mail that the Defense Department’s “system of record for security clearance information . . . does include close to one million contractor personnel who would not be reflected on the DOD’s military and civilian payroll,” a situation the department is moving to correct.
That can’t happen quickly enough for people like Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.). “We need to begin to address the over-designation of security clearances to not only strengthen against the disclosure of information that could threaten national security, but also save taxpayer dollars,” he said.
Following last year’s National Security Agency leaks by Edward Snowden and the Washington Navy Yard shooting by Aaron Alexis, both government contractors with security clearances, there was much hand-wringing over who gets access to government secrets.
But another critical issue is how those who hold clearances can have them revoked.
The GAO report also found that the Defense Department and the Department of Homeland Security have inconsistent revocation procedures. That resulted “in some employees experiencing different protections and processes than other employees,” the GAO said.
This can put some employees at a distinct disadvantage when appealing the revocation of a security clearance. While the Defense Department informs all its workers — uniformed, civilian and contractors — of their right to an attorney, the GAO said the Coast Guard, part of Homeland Security, “was erroneously informing military personnel that they had no right to counsel.”
The Coast Guard agreed to correct its mistake.
Yet the GAO issued this caution: “However, until the Coast Guard instruction and related communication letters are revised to clearly and consistently communicate rights . . . military and civilian employees within the Coast Guard are at risk of not being treated similarly to one another or to employees in other DHS components.”