As the national security workforce ages, dementia impacting U.S. officials poses a threat to national security, according to a first-of-its-kind study by a Pentagon-funded think tank. The report, released this spring, came as several prominent U.S. officials trusted with some of the nation’s most highly classified intelligence experienced public lapses, stoking calls for resignations and debate about Washington’s aging leadership.
Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who had a second freezing episode last month, enjoys the most privileged access to classified information of anyone in Congress as a member of the so-called Gang of Eight congressional leadership. Ninety-year-old Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., whose decline has seen her confused about how to vote and experiencing memory lapses — forgetting conversations and not recalling a monthslong absence — was for years a member of the Gang of Eight and remains a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, on which she has served since 2001.
The study, published by the RAND Corporation’s National Security Research Division in April, identifies individuals with both current and former access to classified material who develop dementia as threats to national security, citing the possibility that they may unwittingly disclose government secrets.
“Individuals who hold or held a security clearance and handled classified material could become a security threat if they develop dementia and unwittingly share government secrets,” the study says.
As the study notes, there does not appear to be any other publicly available research into dementia, an umbrella term for the loss of cognitive functioning, despite the fact that Americans are living longer than ever before and that the researchers were able to identify several cases in which senior intelligence officials died of Alzheimer’s disease, a progressive brain disorder and the most common cause of dementia.
“As people live longer and retire later, challenges associated with cognitive impairment in the workplace will need to be addressed,” the report says. “Our limited research suggests this concern is an emerging security blind spot.”
Most holders of security clearances, a ballooning class of officials and other bureaucrats with access to secret government information, are subject to rigorous and invasive vetting procedures. Applying for a clearance can mean hourslong polygraph tests; character interviews with old teachers, friends, and neighbors; and ongoing automated monitoring of their bank accounts and other personal information. As one senior Pentagon official who oversees such a program told me of people who enter the intelligence bureaucracy, “You basically give up your Fourth Amendment rights.”
Yet, as the authors of the RAND report note, there does not appear to be any vetting for age-related cognitive decline. In fact, the director of national intelligence’s directive on continuous evaluation contains no mention of age or cognitive decline.
While the study doesn’t mention any U.S. officials by name, its timing comes amid a simmering debate about gerontocracy: rule by the elderly. Following McConnell’s first freezing episode, in July, Google searches for the term “gerontocracy” spiked.
“The president called to check on me,” McConnell said when asked about the first episode. “I told him I got sandbagged,” he quipped, referring to President Joe Biden’s trip-and-fall incident during a June graduation ceremony at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado, which sparked conservative criticisms about the 80-year-old’s own functioning.
While likely an attempt by McConnell at deflecting from his lapse, Biden’s age has emerged as a clear concern to voters, including Democrats. Sixty-nine percent of Democrats say Biden is “too old to effectively serve” another term, an Associated Press-NORC poll found last month. The findings were echoed by a CNN poll released last week that found that 67 percent of Democrats said the party should nominate someone else, with 49 percent directly mentioning Biden’s age as their biggest concern.
As commander in chief, the president is the nation’s ultimate classification authority, with the extraordinary power to classify and declassify information broadly. No other American has as privileged access to classified information as the president.
The U.S.’s current leadership is not only the oldest in history, but also the number of older people in Congress has grown dramatically in recent years. In 1981, only 4 percent of Congress was over the age of 70. By 2022, that number had spiked to 23 percent.
In 2017, Vox reported that a pharmacist had filled Alzheimer’s prescriptions for multiple members of Congress. With little incentive for an elected official to disclose such an illness, it is difficult to know just how pervasive the problem is. Feinstein’s retinue of staffers have for years sought to conceal her decline, having established a system to prevent her from walking the halls of Congress alone and risk having an unsupervised interaction with a reporter.
Despite the public controversy, there’s little indication that any officials will resign — or choose not to seek reelection.
After years of speculation about her retirement, 83-year-old Speaker Emerita Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., stunned observers when she announced on Friday that she would run for reelection, seeking her 19th term.