High Demand for Security Checks Scored : Curb Them or Hire More Investigators, Pentagon Unit Says
Amid concern that “numbers are overwhelming” the Pentagon’s security clearance system for contractors, a Defense Department committee has issued a sharp warning that applications for the clearances must be curtailed or investigative forces beefed up.
Last year 250,000 new clearances were issued, giving employees of Pentagon contractors access to classified documents, according to a new study, a copy of which was made available to The Times. In one month alone, a record 26,000 applications were received, the report said.
Moreover, the panel noted, it might take as long as a decade for security officials to reinvestigate some 280,000 persons who were granted access to sensitive or top-secret information more than five years ago, but who have never undergone a subsequent security check.
Espionage Case Cited
The study takes on added significance in light of the widening FBI investigation into the espionage case against two retired Navy officers, John A. Walker Jr. and his brother, Arthur J. Walker, as well as John Walker’s son, Michael Lance. Arthur Walker, who now works for a defense contractor in Norfolk, Va., holds a secret security clearance at the Pentagon, as does Michael Walker, a seaman on the aircraft carrier Nimitz.
“Numbers are overwhelming the whole system,” Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Friday on the ABC-TV program “Good Morning America.”
Nunn called on President Reagan to cut in half the number of Americans with clearances for classified information--now some 4.2 million persons working in government or in industries dealing with protected information.
The internal report was ordered last year after James D. Harper, a California engineer now serving a life sentence in prison, was convicted of selling classified information on U.S. Minuteman missiles to Polish intelligence agents.
Rise in Clearances
According to the study, clearances granted to employees of Pentagon contractors increased 44% between 1979 and 1983 and have continued to mount as the Reagan Administration has pressed its buildup of U.S. military forces.
But altogether, the Defense Department has “less than 200 industrial security representatives in the field” to keep track of 14,000 contractor plants and facilities with workers cleared for access to classified military information, the report said.
It recommended about two dozen policy and administrative initiatives designed to give the Pentagon firmer control over the estimated 16 million classified documents in the hands of defense contractors, including an increase in security forces.
With the advent of the still-unfolding espionage case, the Walkers’ alleged sale of military secrets to the Soviet Union has already produced new calls for across-the-board tightening of access to classified information.
“We’ve got to cut down dramatically on the number of people who have access, and that will give us the chance to have better personnel security clearance procedures,” Nunn said on the television program. “We’ve got to tighten down, got to cut down the amount of classified information.”
Earlier this year, the issue was the subject of hearings by the Senate permanent investigations subcommittee, and Nunn said then that he might introduce legislation dealing with the problem.
Several Approaches Possible
Sources said Friday that several approaches are being considered, including requiring contractors to bear some of the costs of re-questioning employees with top-secret clearances at five-year-intervals, or introducing short-term clearances that would expire after being used for one specific program or purpose.
With increased funds available, the Pentagon last year launched an effort to re-examine holders of top-secret clearances issued more than five years ago. Its Defense Investigative Service had planned to carry out 40,000 such interviews but completed only 32,000 by the end of the year.
The study also concluded that many of the 115,000 top-secret and 912,000 secret clearances held by defense industry employees could be downgraded, if not eliminated, because many of them are seldom or never used.
“Although specific confirmation data is not available,” the Pentagon panel said, “the committee estimates that perhaps 90,000 to 95,000 of the 115,000 top-secret cleared industrial personnel do not have continuous or frequent access to top-secret information.”
It added: “In fact, probably no more than 35,000 to 40,000 of the contractor personnel cleared at the top-secret level have ever had access to top-secret information.”
During the hearings before the permanent investigations subcommittee in April, Nunn contended that the most difficult problem lies in the secret category. He declared: “Today, thousands of persons have access to secret materials based only on national agency checks conducted more than 20 years ago.”