To obtain a federal security clearance, an individual must show that they are sufficiently responsible, trustworthy and loyal. They must possess the sound judgment and high integrity needed to safely access classified information that is core to the nation’s security.
It is important to learn what behaviors will or won’t be regarded as acceptable when applying for a security clearance. Some of them may surprise you. This knowledge will fundamentally help your child avoid problems, obtain a security clearance and seize those ‘golden ticket’ opportunities in the future.
The Internet is a platform for a full range of experiences, including trouble. Here are some online activities that investigators consider while assessing individuals for a security clearance.
Social Media: Your child’s social media posts are no doubt aimed at their friends. However, future employers and security clearance investigators will likely see them too. Posts about drunken nights, road races or wild behavior could raise questions about how responsible and trustworthy an applicant is. Similarly, episodes of cyberbullying or online hazing will raise questions about integrity.
Online gaming/gambling: Participating in online games isn’t a problem in itself, but investigators will look to see if it generated problems. Those could include under-age gambling or gaming/gambling that creates financial problems. Since some hate groups and other unsavory organizations use online platforms as opportunities to connect with impressionable individuals, investigators will also look to see if gaming has connected a young person with suspicious characters.
Illegal downloads: While it isn’t the crime of the century, downloading pirated movies, software or other content is still a crime. Investigators will take note of that behavior, especially if it is persistent. Remember, many cleared jobs are at U.S. Cyber Command and the National Security Agency. The work of those organizations revolves around the integrity and responsible use of computer systems and content, so they are looking for individuals who will uphold those standards.
Encrypted apps and the Dark Web: Involvement with either of these will trigger questions about an individual’s online activities.
Pornography: While viewing pornography is not a crime, viewing child pornography is and could reduce an individual’s chance of obtaining a security clearance.
Drinking: Legal, moderate, well-managed drinking will not prevent a person from getting a security clearance. Isolated and rare instances of under-age drinking will be noted in a security clearance investigation but won’t, on their own, lead to a denial of a clearance. However, any individual who indulges in binge drinking or suffers from alcoholism may have a challenge obtaining a clearance. Those individuals would have to show that the drinking problem is well in the past and thoroughly under control.
Drug Use: Recreational drug use, including misuse of prescription drugs, can be an obstacle to obtaining a clearance. The person must demonstrate that behavior is long past and thoroughly controlled. Even legal drug use – especially of marijuana and cannabis products — may present a challenge to obtaining a security clearance.
The Problem with Marijuana: In many states, in many situations, marijuana is a legal drug. Several states have decriminalized recreational use of marijuana and a growing number are legalizing medical marijuana. A total of 46 of 50 states have legalized CBD or cannabis oil products. Marijuana and cannabis products, however, are not legal under federal law. Consequently, individuals seeking a security clearance should not use marijuana products or even purchase medical marijuana products, including medications like CBD oil for a pet.
Managing money is challenging for most people and especially young people. However, sound money management is essential to obtaining and retaining a security clearance.
Poor money management – such as failing to pay bills on time, running up excessive credit card debt or developing a gambling debt – can reflect poorly on the person’s ability to handle responsibilities. Substantial debt can also leave a person vulnerable to blackmail or other hazards.
Student debt is a standard part of many young people’s lives and, in itself, is not an obstacle to obtaining a clearance. Investigators also understand that unfortunate circumstances or a few bad decisions can saddle a person with financial problems. Significant swings in the housing market, for example, can leave individuals temporarily ‘underwater’ in their mortgage. What investigators look for is evidence that an individual recognizes their financial issues and takes prudent, diligent action to resolve past problems and lessen their risk of future issues.
Loyalty to the United States is a requirement for obtaining a security clearance. Consequently, investigators work to ensure that an individual is not subject to foreign influences or foreign financial ties that could compromise that loyalty.
Foreign travel, foreign friends or family members are not, in themselves, a reason to deny a security clearance. However, applicants must disclose all foreign contacts and all their social media contacts. Investigators will review those interactions to determine if the applicant could be compromised by foreign interests, particularly, interests from countries that are associated with terrorism or with efforts to obtain protected information (such as computer technologies or military secrets) from U.S. citizens.
To qualify for security clearances, individuals need to have sound judgment, be reliable and trustworthy, and demonstrate a willingness to comply with laws, rules and regulations. Consequently, security clearance investigators look closely at any criminal arrests, charges and convictions in the applicant’s past.
An isolated mistake, a moment of poor judgment or minor encounter with the legal system won’t necessarily thwart a security clearance application. But it is absolutely essential to fully and honestly disclose that information on the SF 86 security clearance questionnaire and in response to an investigator’s questions. Officials who manage security clearance reviews understand that anyone can make a mistake. They are looking for clear evidence that the applicant understands that mistake, has put that behavior well behind them, and has become a responsible, trustworthy, law-abiding adult.
Honesty and integrity are key – absolutely key – requirements to obtain a security clearance. That means an applicant may need to tell some uncomfortable truths while applying for a clearance. Maybe your child experimented with drugs in high school, participated in a prank that resulted in vandalism or got carried away with credit card offers and ended up in financial trouble. Your child’s best course of action is to fully and truthfully disclose the blemishes in their past. The information a person discloses will go no further than the security clearance investigators and their direct hiring manager. Therefore, they don’t have to worry about it becoming widely known. Security clearance officials are looking for honest people who have integrity, good judgment and a strong sense of responsibility. A person who owns up to past mistakes and shows they have learned from them demonstrates those important characteristics. A person who hides past mistakes, suggests they lack those characteristics.
As already stated, everybody makes mistakes sometimes. Those mistakes don’t necessarily have to thwart your career development or your security clearance. But you have to work to put those mistakes behind you. If excessive drinking or drug use or financial mismanagement is part of your past, put it well in the past. The more years you put between you and those issues without any relapses will show federal officials that you have grown into a responsible, disciplined, trustworthy individual. It shows that you could safely handle classified information and advance some of the country’s most critical security missions.