Earning a US government security clearance takes a surprising amount of manpower. Even aside from the fact that countless hours are spent deciding whose job merits a higher clearance, the real work is done once that decision is made. Machinations begin, and the exhaustive process of interviewing everyone that prospective employee ever knew begins, no matter how far-flung those connections may be.
All this is to say that the total process is, indeed, expensive. Becoming cleared can cost as much as $15,000 per individual. That’s $58 billion, for anyone keeping count, which is a lot of money for a military which has just gone through budget cuts of 8% in 2014.
Still, $58 billion is a drop in the bucket for a department whose total budget is $455 billion, and much of the security clearance cost is paid by defense contracting companies. So it would appear that another factor is responsible for that drastic decrease.
Edward Snowden could very well be that other factor.
A private defense contractor with Booz Allen, it was Snowden’s security clearance which gave him access to the information he released about the government’s domestic spying apparatus. Those revelations surfaced in June of 2013, and Snowden has been in exile ever since.
Though it’s impossible to say for sure, the Defense Department may have suddenly become much choosier about who it trusts with its secret information.
The Federation of American Scientists reports that this may be the largest drop in clearance since 9/11, when the United States ramped up its intelligence efforts. The DoD has only maintained an official count since 2010, however, so it’s impossible to say for sure.
It’s also not surprising given the Obama administration’s crackdown on whistleblowers. While Snowden remains in asylum in Russia, avoiding extradition to the US, the government has used its authority to pursue others who have pulled back the American veil.
Last month, the Guardian reported that both the Department of Justice and the FBI are still actively engaged in a criminal investigation into Wikileaks, the website founded by Julian Assange to publish secret information. Assange, himself, is also avoiding US extradition for fear of facing prosecution.
A separate but related inquiry in 2013 led to the conviction US Army soldier Chelsea Manning under the Espionage Act. Manning had supplied a trove of documents to Wikileaks which containing embarrassing information about the US government. She is now serving 35 years in military custody.
The Obama administration also pursued Jeffrey Sterling, the whistleblower who revealed details about a botched CIA plan to a New York Times journalist. Sterling was found guilty of mishandling national defense information, and even James Risen, the Times reporter, was threatened with jail time for not revealing his source.
While it’s hard to say for sure if Snowden is the true motive for the DoD’s drop in clearances, we could soon have another clue. On Wednesday, Congress passed a bill to increase military spending. If the number of clearances doesn’t rise relative to that budget increase, then we’ll have a clearer idea.