There are 854,000 people with “Top Secret” Clearance. Who the hell are they? (WaPo’s Top Secret America series)

So the Washington Post’s 2-years-in-the-making series on the crazy house that is our intelligence operations was launched yesterday. Lots of interesting facts, including the estimate that there are 854,000 people with Top Secret clearance, the highest of the three standard categories of classified intelligence:

Every day across the United States, 854,000 [nearly 1.5 times as many people as live in Washington, D.C.] civil servants, military personnel and private contractors with top-secret security clearances are scanned into offices protected by electromagnetic locks, retinal cameras and fortified walls that eavesdropping equipment cannot penetrate.

A standard definition of Top Secret: “Top Secret” shall be applied to information, the unauthorized disclosure of which reasonably could be expected to cause exceptionally grave damage to the national security.

Sounds like a pretty exclusive club, or should be right? If you were to take all of the government employees who might be within a football’s field distance from a piece of “Top Secret” paper…including everyone who works at the Pentagon, CIA, NSA, all active duty military officers, etc. from lowest ranking clerk to top chief, that’d equal to about that 800K number, right (*see footnote)?

Here’s some numbers, taken from Wikipedia and other similarly take-with-a-grain-of-salt sources (some agencies have their payrolls classified):

Total854,000
Central Intelligence Agency20,000
National Security Agency30,000
Defense Intelligence Agency16,500
Army Military Intelligence31,800
Office of the Director of National Intelligence1,500
Every active military officers224,144
All Pentagon personnel26,000
All State Dept. personnel20,000
All of Congress, White House, WH Office~1000
Department of Homeland Security216,000
WTF267,056

So, if Excel is correct, subtracting the usual suspects and then some, there are still more than 260,000 people out there with access to secrets that could cause “grave damage” to our country. But I guess if we’ve got solid security standards applied across all the bureaucracies, it’s not like some barely-old-enough-to-legally-drink-maybe-emotionally-insecure-kid, who happened to be given top secret clearance, could waltz into a classified network system by pretending to listen to Lady Gaga and download anything critical, right?

* Footnote: My count doesn’t include private contractors, some of which do legitimately need top secret clearance. But I believe that’s the point of the WaPo piece, that our intelligence infrastructure has become so bloated and convulutedthat even if you were to wildly overestimate the number of government employees who need top secret clearance, you’d still have hundreds of thousands of other people, including contractors, if the WaPo estimate is on the mark. Read their Top Secret America series for even more disturbing implications.

I'm a programmer, data journalist, and photographer in New York City. I'm the author of three in-progress books: The Bastards Books of Ruby, Photography, and Regular Expressions.