How Many Top Secret Clearances Are There?

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Curious about how many top secret clearances exist? You’re not alone. Understanding the intricacies of security clearances can feel like navigating a labyrinth, but it’s essential for anyone working with sensitive information.

Top secret clearances aren’t just a single level; they encompass various categories and nuances that dictate who gets access to what. Whether you’re aiming for a career in government, defense, or a related field, knowing the different types of top secret clearances can give you an edge. In this article, we’ll delve into the specifics and clarify the often-confusing landscape of top secret clearances.

Understanding Top Secret Clearances

What Is a Top Secret Clearance?

A top secret clearance grants access to highly sensitive information critical to national security. Such a clearance undergoes stringent background checks, including financial history, foreign contacts, and criminal records. Government agencies like the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security issue these clearances.

Levels of Classified Information

Classified information has three primary levels:

  1. Confidential: Revealing confidential information could cause damage to national security. It includes sensitive but less critical information.
  2. Secret: Exposure of secret information could result in serious damage to national security. Examples include strategic plans and intelligence reports.
  3. Top Secret: Unauthorized disclosure of top secret information could cause exceptionally grave damage to national security. It includes highest-level strategic plans and technological secrets.

Each level requires proportionate clearance, with top secret clearances being the most rigorous.

The Process of Gaining a Top Secret Clearance

Eligibility Requirements

Eligibility for a top secret clearance demands U.S. citizenship and a demonstrated loyalty to the country. You must have no convictions for a felony and a history of good financial behavior. Drug use or an addiction history may disqualify you. Additionally, you need positive character references from credible sources lessening the risk of security breaches.

  1. Sponsorship: Your federal agency or employer must sponsor you for clearance. Without sponsorship for a specific position, the process can’t start.
  2. Submission of SF-86 Form: You’ll complete the Standard Form 86 (SF-86), disclosing thorough personal, financial, and behavioral history. The form requires precise and truthful answers to facilitate background investigations.
  3. Background Investigation: The government conducts extensive background checks, scrutinizing your financial records, criminal records, employment history, and foreign affiliations. Investigators may interview neighbors, employers, and acquaintances to validate your information.
  4. Polygraph Examination: Some roles may require a polygraph test to determine your honesty and integrity. The polygraph focuses on verifying the accuracy of your disclosed information.
  5. Adjudication: Security professionals evaluate the investigation results to decide your clearance eligibility. They assess risk factors, weighing your overall trustworthiness against potential vulnerabilities.
  6. Final Determination: The final decision includes issuing your clearance or providing reasons for denial. You might have the opportunity to appeal a denial by presenting additional information or clarification.

These steps ensure only qualified, trustworthy individuals gain access to top secret information, thereby safeguarding national security.

Who Holds Top Secret Clearances?

Federal Agencies and Employees

Top secret clearances are predominantly held by federal employees working in various agencies. Key holders include personnel from the Department of Defense (DoD), Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and National Security Agency (NSA). Employees in these agencies handle classified information essential to national security. The DoD alone accounts for a significant portion of top secret clearances due to its extensive defense operations and intelligence activities. Within these agencies, clearances are typically granted based on role-specific needs and security protocols.

Contractors and Private Sector Roles

Private sector contractors also hold top secret clearances. These contractors often work on government contracts requiring access to classified material. Companies like Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Boeing engage in defense-related projects that necessitate cleared personnel. Individuals in cybersecurity, engineering, and defense technology roles frequently require top secret clearances to perform their duties. These clearances allow private sector experts to collaborate with government agencies on critical security projects, ensuring integrated efforts in safeguarding national interests.

Numbers and Trends

Estimating How Many Clearances Are Issued

Top secret clearances remain crucial for national security, yet estimating their exact number can be challenging due to the classified nature of the data. However, periodic reports provide insight. As of 2021, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) reported approximately 1.3 million individuals held top secret clearances. This number includes federal employees, military personnel, and contractors who require access to highly sensitive information. The total fluctuates with changes in defense and intelligence needs, impacting the annual issuance of top secret clearances.

Trends in Security Clearance Levels

Recent trends indicate a slight decrease in the number of top secret clearances. The ODNI’s annual report revealed a 3% decline from the previous year, reflecting increased scrutiny in the vetting process. This decrease suggests a push towards tighter security measures and sophisticated risk assessments. Additionally, there’s an observable trend where more advanced technologies require fewer people to access top secret information. This shift impacts the overall landscape of security clearance levels and signifies technology’s crucial role in national security.


Understanding the landscape of top secret clearances is crucial for grasping how national security is maintained. With around 1.3 million holders reported in 2021 by the ODNI, the number of clearances has seen a slight decline. This trend reflects heightened scrutiny and a shift towards leveraging technology to tighten security measures. As advancements continue to evolve, the criteria and number of top secret clearances will likely adapt, ensuring that only those truly necessary have access to the most sensitive information. Stay informed about these changes to appreciate the ongoing efforts in safeguarding national security.


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