The federal security clearance questionnaire and subsequent background investigation are designed to determine if a person is sufficiently responsible, loyal and trustworthy to safely access classified information that is core to the nation’s security.
Applicants don’t have to be angels.
At some point, we all make mistakes or have lapses in judgment. Isolated missteps in your past won’t prevent you from obtaining a security clearance. However, the rest of your behavior should show that you are a responsible, stable person who can be trusted to conduct your work and life with integrity, sound judgment, and loyalty to the United States.
It is, however, very important to understand what behaviors will or won’t be regarded as acceptable when you apply for a security clearance. Some of them may surprise you.
The internet is a platform for a full range of experiences, including trouble. Here are some online activities that investigators consider while assessing you for a security clearance.
Social Media: Your social media posts might be aimed at your friends. But, future employers and security clearance investigators will likely see them too. Posts about drunken nights, road races or wild behavior could cause those employers and investigators to question how responsible you are. Similarly, cyberbullying or online hazing will prompt investigators to question your 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, gaming/gambling that creates financial problems or gaming that connects you to suspicious individuals.
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.
Encrypted apps and the Dark Web: Involvement with either of these will trigger questions about your 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. Legal drug use may also create a challenge. Keep reading.
The Trouble with Marijuana: In many states, marijuana is now legal. Several states have decriminalized recreational use and a growing number are legalizing medical marijuana, including medicinal 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 for a pet.
Managing money is challenging for most people and especially when you are young. 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, investigators will review those interactions to determine if foreign interests could compromise the applicant. 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 complete this assessment, an applicant must also disclose their contacts on social media platforms.
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 judgement or minor encounter with the legal system won’t necessarily thwart a security clearance application. However, 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 you may need to tell some uncomfortable truths while applying for a clearance. Maybe you 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. The best course of action is to fully and truthfully disclose the blemishes in your past. The information you disclose will go no further than the security clearance investigators and your direct hiring manager. Therefore, you don’t have to worry about it becoming widely known. Security clearance officials are looking for honest people who have integrity, good judgement and a strong sense of responsibility. Owning up to past mistakes and showing you have learned from them shows those characteristics. Hiding past mistakes doesn’t.
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.
You’ve done your homework. Now quiz yourself!
Creating a budget and sticking to it will help you avoid going into debt.
People share games, download music and post files online all the time. It’s no big deal to share content in this way.
The FBI Piracy Warning only applies to companies in the entertainment industry. It is okay to use content from other companies without paying for it.
If you get arrested for DUI as a juvenile, it won’t show up on an adult record later.
Jamie deals drugs to make cash to help pay his mom’s rent. Though Rae knows that Jamie deals, she doesn’t know that he is carrying drugs today. If Rae lets Jamie drive her car and they are pulled over, Rae is liable even though she is unaware of the drugs in the car.
Paying the minimum monthly payment, but not paying the total balance on your credit card each month will not cost you any more than the items you charged.
Konrad stole a pair of Nikes at the mall that would have cost him $200 to buy. He won’t be charged with felony theft, so he does not need to be worried about hurting his chances of getting hired.
Medical marijuana for pets is legal in my state. My dog has a hip problem for which the vet has prescribed CBD oil. Giving the CBD oil to my dog wouldn’t be a problem for my security clearance.
Posting on social media can put my ability to find employment at risk.
The difference between the three levels of security clearance relates to the degree of security risk to the country.
Saving more money than you spend will damage your credit rating.
Sometimes, when I have trouble concentrating in class, my friend shares his ADHD medication with me. It’s ok for me to take it because I am using it for its intended purpose.
I just got my wisdom teeth out, but haven’t been in too much pain. Since I don’t need my prescription pain medication, it’s ok to give it to my friend whose dad doesn’t have health insurance, but needs something to manage his back pain.
I haven’t posted any inappropriate pictures on my social media, but my friend has a picture of us smoking weed at a party years ago. I don’t need to include this in my security clearance application since it isn’t something I posted.
Making a late payment on your cell phone bill can damage your credit rating.
A K-pop album that you have been waiting to be released just leaked online. It would not affect your chances of obtaining a security clearance to stream it now.