While the process of obtaining a security clearance doesn’t begin until an employer sponsors an individual for a clearance, it’s extremely helpful to learn about and prepare for the clearance process well in advance. Basic preparation can spare an individual from delays, challenges or even a denial when they apply for a clearance.
A security clearance, quite simply, is a determination by the United States government that a person is eligible to access classified national security information. Whether they are working directly for a federal agency or for a private contractor that serves the federal government, individuals must show they are sufficiently loyal, honest, trustworthy and stable. They must responsibly handle information about military capabilities, cyber operations and other activities that impact the security of the United States.
There are three levels of clearances – Confidential, Secret, and Top Secret – that correspond to the nature of the information accessed at each level. High-level federal personnel and contractors may require further vetting to be cleared to access especially sensitive information, specifically Sensitive Compartmented Information (SCI) and Special Access Programs (SAGs).
To obtain a clearance, individuals must pass a detailed vetting process.
The Questionnaire: After receiving a sponsorship (and likely a job offer) from a federal agency or contractor, the individual must fill out the Questionnaire for National Security Positions (Standard Form 86). It asks about education, work history, financial history, places of residence, drug and alcohol use, police record and other aspects of your life. The questionnaire is long and detailed, but it is essential to answer all questions and answer them accurately. Omissions or errors could cause delays or obstacles in obtaining a security clearance. If you realize after submitting the SF86 that you inadvertently omitted or misstated some information, seek to correct that issue as quickly as possible.
The Investigation: Federal officials will verify your questionnaire responses through records checks and interviews with you individuals who know you, and references that you provide. The investigator will also ask to interview the applicant. Although that interview is not mandatory, applicants are strongly encouraged to sit for an interview with their security clearance investigator. The interview provides a broad opportunity to address any uncertainties, contradictions, gaps or questions that have surfaced during the investigation. Refusal to do this interview can result in processing delays or a denial of your security clearance.