Clearance Process

What is the Process?

Obtaining a security clearance – at any level – is a privilege, not a right. The interests of national security require that anyone privileged to be employed by the government must be reliable, trustworthy, of good conduct and character and of complete loyalty to the United States. This means that the appointment of each civilian employee in any department or agency of the government is typically subject to some type of investigation.

Getting a clearance can be an involved process, depending on the type of clearance you are seeking. Your employer or prospective employer must first determine that your position is one requiring access to classified information, assignment to sensitive duties or work in a position of public trust.

Timetable

The process of acquiring a security clearance historically has taken anywhere from several months to several years to complete. This timeline depends on several factors including the backlog of applications, the depth of the investigation required, whether significant issues are uncovered and the adjudicative process. The Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 mandated that clearance agencies must make a determination on at least 90 percent of applications for a personnel security clearance within an average of 60 calendar days after investigators receive the forms.

A 2010 General Accountability Office study found that most of the agencies reviewed took from 62 days to 154 days to complete the process. You can find the most up to date timelines by agency on the U.S. Intelligence Careers website. As of 2020, most agencies required a minimum of 20 weeks (with some, like the NSA, taking at least 33 weeks) to move from the initial screening to final approval for a hire.

The higher the clearance level, the deeper the investigation into your background, and the more time it is likely to take. If complicated issues come up during an investigation, it will likely take even longer.

Expect the investigation to take longer if you have:

  • Lived or worked in several geographic locations or overseas;
  • Traveled outside of the United States;
  • Relatives who have lived outside of the United States; or
  • Background information that is difficult to obtain or involves issues that require an expansion of your case.

Facilitate Your Process

There are several things that the applicant can do to help this process move as quickly and smoothly as possible.

Prepare in advance for the SF 86: You don’t have to wait until you receive a job offer to start working through the SF 86. Go to www.opm.gov/forms, download a copy of the SF 86 and begin compiling the needed information. It could enable you to start that new job a few weeks sooner.

Full, honest disclosure: Provide true and complete answers to questions on the SF 86 and to the investigators’ questions. Applicants sometimes try to “self-adjudicate.” They might omit certain details they believe could be problematic in obtaining their security clearance. Failure to fully disclose, however, can prolong the background investigation, raise serious questions about the applicant’s integrity and ultimately result in the denial of a security clearance or job offer.

Be prompt, be available: When a federal official contacts you for a Personal Subject Interview, a polygraph or other appointment, take the first available date. That practice will avoid prolonging the security clearance process and demonstrate your commitment to securing a clearance and starting work. Also keep the agency and investigator informed of your current address and full contact information.

The Application

Once you have been selected for a position requiring clearance, you will then complete security forms, which may include the SF86 and/or the SF85P. Your signature on these documents will allow the agency to check your history, including employment, credit and financial records, military background, police record, medical records and other areas of your life. In some cases, you may be able to submit your information via the Electronic Questionnaires for Investigations Processing (e-Quip).

Background Investigation

The security office will generally submit your forms or e-QIP to the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) which will conduct the investigation. A prerequisite for accessing classified national security information is the completion and favorable outcome of a background investigation. The scope of the investigation will vary, depending on the nature of the position.

Local agency checks will be conducted to review your criminal history within the jurisdictions where you have lived, worked or attended school. During the investigative process, inappropriate conduct from your past may be uncovered. This is not automatic grounds for denial of a clearance. In fact, the investigators will look deeply into the actual incident and determine its relevance on a case-by-case basis. They will consider the following factors:

  • The nature, extent, and seriousness of the conduct;
  • The circumstances surrounding the conduct, such as your knowledgeable participation;
  • The frequency of the conduct and how recent it was;
  • The extent to which participation was voluntary;
  • The presence or absence of rehabilitation and other permanent behavioral changes;
  • The motivation for the conduct;
  • The potential for pressure, coercion, exploitation, or duress; and
  • The likelihood of continuation or recurrence.

The investigation may also include interviews with co-workers, family, friends and other acquaintances; a review of your medical, credit and financial history; a criminal records check; and questioning regarding illegal drug usage, contact with foreign nationals and other topics.

Background investigations that include interviews must include a sufficient number of people who know you well, such as neighbors, co-workers, supervisors, and, if applicable, former spouses. Background investigators will want to talk to as many knowledgeable people as possible to get a balanced, accurate, and comprehensive picture of you. Later, you may have an opportunity to refute any misleading or false information that was reported about you. When investigators are conducting interviews with your references – those that you supply and those that are developed by the agency – and your past and current employers, they are trying to determine particular information about you.

Personal Interview

Many types of background investigations involve a personal interview, which is used to validate the data you filled out in your SF86 and clarify any other information about you. Investigators will be sure to verify:

  • Your U.S. citizenship and the citizenship of immediate family members
  • Your date and place of birth
  • Your education level
  • Your employment for the last seven years
  • Your financial status
  • Completion of the SF86 and that it is current within 90 days of the investigation.

Polygraph Exam

The purpose of a polygraph exam is to assist in determining whether you can be trusted with sensitive national security information. If you want a security clearance, you must be prepared to answer questions of a sensitive, personal nature and to do so honestly. Questions of personal habits, finances, trust, and loyalty to the United States are fair game.

ThinkstockPhotos-494414394There are really two types of polygraph exams: the Counterintelligence Polygraph and the Counterintelligence plus Suitability Polygraph. The Counterintelligence Polygraph is used to determine if you’ve had any involvement in espionage or sabotage against the United States, while the Suitability Polygraph delves into your personal life with questions about your conduct and behavior. For instance, in a Suitability Polygraph, you may get questions about drug use, involvement in criminal conduct, and whether you were truthful on your security forms.

You should prepare for a suitability polygraph by:

  • Reviewing the information contained in your SF86
  • Getting a good night’s sleep
  • Taking regular medications
  • Not skipping any meals
  • Coming with an open mind
  • Allowing enough time in your schedule
  • Arriving early

Polygraphs can be intimidating so it’s helpful to understand the process and follow a few best practices.

The Process

The polygraph is completed in three phases:

  1. During the pre-test phase, the examiner reviews the releases which the applicant needs to sign, and explains the equipment used in the test. The examiner and applicant talk through all the questions that will be asked and the applicant can raise any questions or concerns about the test. Experts urge applicants to treat this as a conversation and an opportunity to get more comfortable with the process.
  2. During the test, the examiner asks the pre-approved questions as well as several irrelevant questions. The examiner asks the set of questions several times in order to obtain better readings. Examiners realize that many candidates feel stress during the polygraph and can adjust their equipment accordingly.
  3. Following the test, the examiner and applicant may discuss any answers that generated an inconclusive result or that suggest deception. They may develop an alternate, preferable way to ask about the same topic.

Applicants get three opportunities to take the polygraph before a final adjudication of their security clearance application is completed.

Best Practices

Polygraph experts recommend applicants avoid over-preparing for polygraphs and simply treat them as honest (if somewhat unusual) conversations.

  • Provide true and complete information on your SF 86, and answer the examiner’s questions truthfully, promptly and completely. Address sensitive and even problematic topics honestly. Any effort to conceal or downplay such issues could lead an examiner to conclude that an applicant is being deceptive.
  • Avoid researching polygraph strategies online. Many websites contain misinformation about polygraphs, including so-called strategies for passing or beating a polygraph. Such sites can be misguiding, heighten an applicants’ stress level and even lead an examiner to suspect deception.
  • Follow your normal routine preceding the polygraph – get a typical night’s sleep, eat your typical diet, go to the gym, etc. Some stress is common among individuals taking polygraphs. So do the things that make the day feel normal and make you feel comfortable so that you can minimize your stress.

Adjudicative Process

The adjudicative process is the careful weighing of a number of variables known as the “whole person concept” and includes an examination of a sufficient period of your life to determine if you are an acceptable security risk. Available, reliable information about you – past and present, favorable and unfavorable – is considered in reaching a determination of your eligibility for a security clearance.

Adjudicators, who render clearance decisions, review the completed investigations. They consider all the available information – the good, the bad and the ugly – when making clearance decisions, applying the criteria for access to classified or sensitive information as spelled out in Intelligence Community Directive (ICD) 704.

Adjudicators assess the collected information against the ICD 704 Adjudicative Guidelines to decide if you are eligible for a clearance or a position of trust. If no significant adverse information is uncovered, you’ll be granted clearance eligibility at the level requested by your agency. If significant, unfavorable or unresolved material develops, it could mean that your case will be delayed until additional information is gathered and facts are verified. Ultimately, you may be denied a clearance.

Clearances can be denied only on the basis of substantive information that raises concerns about stability, loyalty, character, judgment, reliability or trustworthiness. They are never denied on the basis of gender, race, religion or sexual orientation.

The Department of Defense has gone to great lengths to ensure that the clearance process is fair and balanced. Clearances aren’t denied without people getting a chance to give their side of the story – to explain or rebut any derogatory information that has developed.

Federal agencies will normally accept another agency’s investigation as the basis for granting a security clearance, provided your last security clearance investigation was completed within the past five years for a Top Secret clearance and 10 years for a Secret clearance, and you have not had a break in service of more than two years. Also considered is whether there have been any significant changes in your situation since your last investigation. Some federal agencies might have additional investigative or adjudicative requirements that must be met prior to their accepting a clearance granted by another agency.

Adjudicative Guidelines

Specifically, there are 13 Adjudication Guidelines that adjudicators consider when determining eligibility for access to classified information and eligibility to perform sensitive duties. A brief summary of each guideline is provided below, or you can review the full document on the guidelines here.

  • Allegiance to the United States: An individual must be of unquestioned allegiance to the United States. The willingness to safeguard classified information is in doubt if there is any reason to suspect an individual’s allegiance to the United States.

Example of a concern: Membership in an organization that supports overthrowing the U.S. government.

 

  • Foreign Influence: Foreign contacts and interests may be a security concern if the individual has divided loyalties, is vulnerable to pressure from any foreign interest, or foreign financial interests which may be manipulated to help a foreign person, group or government in a way that is not in U.S. interests.

Example of a concern: Failure to report, when required, an association with a foreign national.

  • Foreign Preferences: When an individual acts in such a way as to indicate a preference for a foreign country over the United States, then he or she may be prone to provide information or make decisions that are harmful to the interests of the United States. This category is primarily relevant to dual citizens. Examiners want to ensure an individual isn’t taking advantage of the benefits of their other citizenship, such as traveling on a foreign passport.

Example of a concern: Failure to report to an appropriate security official the possession of a passport issued by any other country.

  • Sexual Behavior: Sexual behavior is a security concern if it involves a criminal offense; indicates a personality or emotional disorder; may subject the individual to coercion, exploitation, or duress; or reflects lack of judgment or discretion. Sexual orientation or preference may not be used as a disqualifying factor in determining a person’s eligibility for a security clearance. Examiners will look for evidence of criminal sexual behavior, recent or frequent use of prostitutes, or viewing of child pornography.

Example of a concern: Sexual behavior of a criminal nature, whether or not the individual has been prosecuted.

  • Personal Conduct: Conduct involving questionable judgment, lack of candor, dishonesty or unwillingness to comply with rules and regulations can raise questions about an individual’s reliability, trustworthiness and ability to protect classified information. Examiners will look for evidence that an applicant has hidden or distorted some aspect of their personal information on the SF 86 and in other examinations.

Example of a concern: Deliberately providing false or misleading information concerning relevant facts to an investigator or security official.

  • Financial Considerations: Failure to live within one’s means, satisfy debts and meet financial obligations may indicate poor self-control, lack of judgement or unwillingness to abide by rules or regulations. An individual who is financially overextended is at risk of having to engage in illegal acts to generate funds. Unexplained affluence is often linked to proceeds from financially profitable criminal acts.

Example of a concern: A history of not meeting financial obligations or an inability or unwillingness to satisfy debts.

  • Alcohol Consumption: Excessive alcohol consumption often leads to the exercise of questionable judgment or the failure to control impulses, and can raise questions about an individual’s reliability and trustworthiness. Examiners will look for signs of alcohol abuse, including instances of public intoxication and Driving Under the Influence (DUI) convictions.

Example of a concern: Alcohol-related incident, such as driving while under the influence.

  • Drug Involvement: Use of an illegal drug or misuse of a prescription drug can raise questions about an individual’s reliability and trustworthiness, both because it may impair judgment and because it raises questions about a person’s ability or willingness to comply with laws, rules and regulations. Many applicants are hesitant to disclose isolated instances of experimenting with drugs in their youth. Full disclosure is always the best course. As long as the applicant has not used drugs in recent years, those isolated youthful incidents are generally not grounds to deny a security clearance. Applicants, however, should be cautious about their behavior in states or countries where marijuana or other drugs are legal. Recent and/or repeated drug use in those settings typically is not excused.

Example of a concern: Recent drug use, illegal drug possession or drug dependence.

  • Psychological Conditions: Certain emotional, mental and personality conditions can impair judgment, reliability or trustworthiness. Examiners will look for evidence of untreated mental illness, unreliability or dysfunctional behavior.

Example of a concern: The individual has failed to follow treatment advice related to a diagnosed emotional, mental or personality condition, such as failure to take prescribed medication.

  • Criminal Conduct: Criminal activity creates doubt about a person’s judgment, reliability and trustworthiness. Examiners will look for evidence of felonies, misdemeanors and infractions. As with youthful drug experiments, a youthful infraction can be tolerated if the applicant has demonstrated good behavior since and has good character references.

Example of a Concern: A single serious crime or multiple lesser offenses.

  • Handling Protected Information: Deliberate or negligent failure to comply with rules and regulations for protecting classified information or other sensitive information raises doubt about an individual’s trustworthiness, judgment, reliability or willingness to safeguard such information and is a concern. These can range from repeatedly failing to lock a safe to showing a callous attitude towards your duties. They are any behaviors that suggest the applicant might fail to properly handle classified information.

Example of a concern: Collecting or storing classified information in an unauthorized location.

  • Outside Activities: Involvement in certain types of outside employment or activities is of security concern if it poses a conflict with an individual’s security responsibilities and could create an increased risk of unauthorized disclosure of classified information. Examiners will explore the applicant’s outside activities and personal connections to identify any situation that might present a serious risk.

Example of a concern: Service or employment with the government of a foreign country.

  • Use of Information Technology Systems: Noncompliance with rules, procedures, guidelines or regulations pertaining to information technology systems may raise security concerns about an individual’s trustworthiness, willingness and ability to properly protect classified systems, networks and information. Information Technology Systems include all related equipment used for the communication, transmission, processing, manipulation and storage of classified or sensitive information. This category covers such activities as excessive illegal downloading of music, misuse of a workplace computer system (for example, to access pornography) or hacking.

Example of a concern: Illegal or unauthorized entry into any IT system or component thereof.