Privacy SOS

The haves and the have-nots in secretive America

We have just learned from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence that 4,917,751 US citizens now have either confidential, secret or top secret security clearance. That’s more than seven times the population of Boston.

But the 4,917,751 figure dates from October 2012. Given how this number is steadily growing (it was 4,863,552 in October 2011), those with some form of security clearance probably top 5 million.

They belong to a growing class of ‘haves’ – as in ‘those who have security clearance.’

That’s about one out of every 30 people who qualify to apply for a growing number of ‘national security’ jobs. And if they keep their heads down and are not tempted to become the kind of ‘whistleblower’ singled out by the Obama Administration for harsh punishment, they should have secure economic futures.

Why one out of 30? Who are the contenders for positions in this tight-lipped elite?

The US population is now 313 million. If you subtract seniors (nearly 45 million), non citizens who don’t qualify for security clearance (40 million), and citizens who are disqualified by virtue of felony convictions (6 million or more) the number of those who can hope to obtain clearance has sunk to about 222 million.

But that’s before we take a stab at estimating numbers of people who honestly answer the security clearance questions about "illegal drug involvement, financial delinquencies, mental health counseling, alcohol-related incidents and counseling…civil court actions, misuse of computer systems, and subversive activities."

"Illegal drug involvement" accounts for some 22 million, at the very least. And if you guesstimate 50 million for all those other categories – one source says 17 million have a drinking problem and a full quarter of all adults have a mental health issue in a single year – you very rapidly reach 150 million who are potential candidates for the lengthy clearance process. The actual figure may be considerably lower.

But let’s stick with 150 million and divide it by 5 million and you arrive at 30. Go into a room of 30 adult Americans who look like they have lived impeccably law-abiding lives (or can simulate the part) and guess which one has security clearance.

Government employees with security clearance outnumber contractors about four to one, and ‘top secret’ clearance accounts for about one-third of the total.

These are society’s "haves" in more ways than one. It is difficult to imagine the economic ‘have nots’ taking a stab at completing Standard Form 86—SF86 (Questionnaire for National Security Positions).

So we inhabit a nation that is not just polarized ideologically and economically, but also in terms of who has access to information. That includes access to all kinds of private information about ordinary people in this country and around the world.

If information is power, it seems safe to assume they have more of it than people who are outside the secretive circle.

Back in August 2002 Sixth Circuit Court judge Damon Keith warned about the government’s secret proceedings that "Democracies die behind closed doors."

Regrettably, these words have fallen on deaf ears in the decade since then.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.