FBI issues more top secret clearance for terrorism cases
By Kevin Johnson,
More state and local law enforcement officers are getting top-secret
clearances from the FBI to access sensitive federal information in
terrorism cases than at anytime since the Sept. 11 attacks, a USA
TODAY review of bureau records shows.
Clearances granted to members of the FBI's network of regional
terrorism task forces jumped to 878 in 2009, up from 125 in 2007,signaling intensified attention to domestic terror threats. During the
same period, clearances granted to other law enforcement officers and
contractors soared to 945 from 364.
As of last month, the number of clearances this year were on pace to
equal or surpass last year's totals, with 557 granted to task force
members and 587 to other officers.
Police officials said the clearance program, once widely criticized as
slow to provide access to key information about emerging threats and
terror investigations, has added needed intelligence to recent terror
inquiries from Colorado to New York.
Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis says some of the agency's officers
with clearance authority assisted in the fast-moving May investigation
into the unsuccessful bombing in New York's Times Square. Eight Boston
officers have clearance, up from two or three in 2001.
"Prior to Sept. 11, this wouldn't have happened," Davis said. "Now,
there is a feeling that we are right in the middle" of the war on
Faisal Shahzad, arrested 53 hours and 20 minutes after the failed
attack, pleaded guilty to the attempt in June.
Last year, New York police worked with their federal counterparts to
thwart an attempted assault on the city's transit system by terror
operatives with ties to Denver, New York Deputy Police Commissioner
Paul Browne said.
The information shared can include intelligence about terror suspects
as well as other criminal probes.
Part of the increase, federal and local officials say, is because of
the rapid expansion of the terrorism task forces created after the
2001 assaults to disrupt future terror plots.
Since 2001, the number of terror units, which draw on federal, state
and local investigators, have grown from 35 to 104 nationwide. The
units are staffed with 4,433 officers and agents, up from 912 in 2001,
FBI spokesman Bill Carter said.
Members of those units usually need a one-time clearance to view top
In New York, Browne said, there are 120 officers assigned to
anti-terror units with the FBI, up from 17 before 9/11. He estimates
about 200 officers are cleared to view classified information,
including 80 who aren't detailed to terror units.
Clearance "becomes a necessary requirement" for work on classified
cases, he said.
The clearance program, first widely offered to officers soon after the
Sept. 11 attacks, was part of a shift in bureau strategy to improve a
tense relationship with local police. At that time, police leaders,
including members of the International Association of Chiefs of
Police, complained the bureau wasn't sharing enough information about
Despite the recent increase in clearance grants, FBI Assistant
Director Ronald Ruecker, the bureau's liaison to local law enforcement
agencies, said most officers still do not have access to classified
information and "many don't need clearances."
Ruecker said the FBI is launching an effort to declassify information
that can be shared with more local investigators.
"Trying to get everybody into the clearance arena is not the
solution," Ruecker said, adding that clearances can be granted only
after applicants — including chiefs — pass detailed background
investigations. Those inquiries can take months to complete.
"There has been a paradigm shift from then (pre-Sept. 11) and now,"
Ruecker said. "The philosophy (among federal authorities) was protect
what you can and share if you must. It isn't that way anymore."