Service, training and career development within the military equips many people with all the skills needed to step into desirable jobs within federal agencies or government contractors. In some cases, new veterans even have prospects of continuing their work for the same agencies they served while in uniform. That transition, however, is not as simple or quick as many people would expect. The reality is that hiring and security clearance processes – even for transitioning military members – are complex and time-consuming. Consequently, a transitioning service member typically can’t expect to to wrap up their military job on Friday afternoon and step into their new civilian government role come Monday morning.
Acquiring a security clearance as a civilian involves some different processes than military clearances and requires applicants to meet different – and sometimes changing – standards.
Consequently, it is very beneficial to learn about those processes long before leaving military service. By understanding the requirements, securing a job offer and starting the security clearance process while still in service, transitioning military members can greatly improve their chances of receiving their new security clearance. They can also improve their ability to start their desired civilian job soon after their military service ends.
Different federal agencies – and the companies that complete contract work for them – operate on slightly different timelines when it comes to hiring individuals and vetting them for new security clearances. But every timeline is lengthy.
Look at intelligencecareers.gov to find the most up-to-date timelines for each agency. As of spring 2020, the average time it takes to land a job offer and security clearance to work at the National Security Agency is 33-42 weeks. Successful applicants for jobs with the Defense Intelligence Agency or Director of National Intelligence typically require 20-plus weeks to complete the hiring and security clearance procedures while applicants to the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency typically need 18-plus weeks.
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 – including transitioning military who have been through background checks and security clearances before – 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.
Once you have been selected for a position requiring clearance, you will then complete security forms (SF85P and SF86) or Electronic Questionnaires for Investigations Processing (e-Quip) and other supporting documents. 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.
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 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.
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:
To obtain a security clearance for a civilian position at NSA and some other federal agencies, applicants must take a Full Scope polygraph which covers both counterintelligence and lifestyle issues. Consequently, the test can include questions about espionage, sabotage, terrorist activities, deliberate damage of government information systems or secret contacts with foreign agents, as well as questions about you involvement with drugs, alcohol, crime, financial mismanagement or efforts to falsify your SF 86.
You should prepare for a suitability polygraph by:
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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Example of a concern: Membership in an organization that supports overthrowing the U.S. government.
Example of a concern: Failure to report, when required, an association with a foreign national.
Example of a concern: Failure to report to an appropriate security official the possession of a passport issued by any other country.
Example of a concern: Sexual behavior of a criminal nature, whether or not the individual has been prosecuted.
Example of a concern: Deliberately providing false or misleading information concerning relevant facts to an investigator or security official.
Example of a concern: A history of not meeting financial obligations or an inability or unwillingness to satisfy debts.
Example of a concern: Alcohol-related incident, such as driving while under the influence.
Example of a concern: Recent drug use, illegal drug possession or drug dependence.
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.
Example of a Concern: A single serious crime or multiple lesser offenses.
Example of a concern: Collecting or storing classified information in an unauthorized location.
Example of a concern: Service or employment with the government of a foreign country.
Example of a concern: Illegal or unauthorized entry into any IT system or component thereof.
You’ve read about the process. Are you ready to fill out the SF86?
If I don’t have an answer for a question on the SF-86, I should just leave it blank.
Being arrested automatically disqualifies you from obtaining a security clearance.
When applying for a security clearance, it is best to leave out any past mistakes or bad behavior on your application.
The difference between the three levels of security clearance relates to the age of the applicant.
I am a recovering alcoholic. Even though I have been sober for the past 5 years and actively seek treatment, my alcoholism will automatically disqualify me from obtaining a security clearance.
I was arrested for DUI in high school, but my record has since been expunged. I don’t need to mention this on my application, since it was so long ago and is no longer part of my record.
I was once arrested while abroad, but not charged. I will need to report this on my SF86.
I will need to report any instances of illegal downloading in which I have engaged in the past 7 years.
I am a dual citizen of Canada and the United States, with passports from both countries. When I fill out the SF-86, I need to report any international travel I have had under both passports.
I should include information for the class I took at my local community college to brush up on my math skills, even though it was non-credit.
I will need the federal tax ID number of each of my former employers to complete the SF86.
The SF86 asks about each job I have had for the past 10 years. I should report all of my full-time employment, but don’t need to mention part-time jobs, including my job as a summer camp counselor.
If a member of my immediate family is not a U.S. citizen and lives in the U.S., I will need to know the type of documentation they have to support residency in the U.S.
I was adopted and as an adult met my birth mother. I need to report information for my adoptive parents and my birth mother on the SF86.
I will need to include the frequency with which I communicate with any immediate family members who live abroad.
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.
Two years ago, while we were living together, my brother dated someone who was in the U.S. on a work visa. I need to list information about that person on the SF86.
While I was stationed abroad in the military, I occasionally took day trips off base to explore the area. I was in the country on official government business, so I don’t need to report these trips.
I attended an international conference in my field of study and made friends with an attendee who is a citizen of the host country while there. We occasionally send each other news articles and peer-reviewed articles related to our field via email. I need to report this contact on my SF86.
Paying your bills on time is a very important factor in obtaining your security clearance.
I will need to provide the name and description of any international trade shows, conferences, seminars or meetings I have attended in the last 7 years, including the name, description, dates, purpose and location of each event.
If you get arrested for DUI as a juvenile, it won’t show up on an adult record later.
When I was in high school, I was hospitalized after a suicide attempt. Even though this was more than 10 years ago, I need to report it on the SF86.
I invest in a mutual fund that is publicly traded on the U.S. exchange. The mutual fund invests in American and internationally owned businesses. I need to report this in the Foreign Activities Section of SF86.
If I report my past drug use on the SF86, any information I provide cannot be used against me as evidence in a criminal proceeding.
While I was living abroad six years ago, I opened a bank account in my country of residence. I do not need to report this on the SF86 because I have since closed the account.
If I put a contact down as a reference to verify one of my places of residence, I can put that same person down in the section of the SF86 that asks for people who know me well.
I should not write my cousin as a reference in the section of the SF86 that asks for people who know me well, because we are related.
I cannot use my spouse, relative or roommate to verify my most recent residence.
To accurately complete the SF86, I will need to know the address of every residence I have occupied in the past 10 years, as well as the dates I lived at each home and full contact information for a neighbor, landlord or other person who can verify the information I have provided.
I have to report if I’ve been fired from a job in the last 7 years, but don’t need to report about the time I quit my job after my boss told me they were planning to let me go.
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.
Having student loan debt automatically disqualifies you from obtaining a security clearance.