Security Clearances

Many people think that they can go to a company or agency and apply for their own security clearance. This is far from the truth. Only the federal government can grant someone a security clearance, and to get one the applicant must work for a government agency or contractor and conduct business that justifies granting him or her access to highly sensitive information.

Title:Security Clearance Overview

Date:February 2010


The military possesses information and technology which could be helpful to our enemies. The unauthorized release of this information can compromise our nation's national security. Unauthorized release can cause battles/wars to be lost, missions to be ineffective, and can result in the death or injury of military and civilian personnel.

Personnel Security Investigations (PSIs) and security clearances are key elements in protecting the security of the United States. PSIs and security clearances are required to counter the threats that may stem from:

  • Foreign intelligence services;
  • Organizations or people who wish to overthrow or undermine the United States government through unconstitutional means, violent acts, or other terrorist group activities;
  • Individuals who:
    • May be susceptible to pressure or improper influence.
    • Have been dishonest or demonstrated a lack of integrity that has caused others to doubt their reliability.

In the military, all classified information is divided into one of three categories:


    Applied to information or material the unauthorized disclosure of which could be reasonably expected to cause damage to the national security.

  2. SECRET:

    Applied to information or material the unauthorized disclosure of which reasonably could be expected to cause serious damage to the national security.


    Applied to information or material the unauthorized disclosure of which reasonably could be expected to cause exceptionally grave damage to the national security.

In addition to the above, some classified information is so sensitive that even the extra protection measures applied to Top Secret information are not sufficient. This information is known as "Sensitive Compartmented Information" (SCI) or Special Access Programs (SAP), and one needs special "SCI Access" or SAP approval to be given access to this information.

"For Official Use Only" is not a security classification. It is used to protect information covered under the Privacy Act, and other sensitive data.

Who requires a security clearance?

Basically, anyone who requires access to classified information to perform their duties. If your job requires you to have access to CONFIDENTIAL information, you would require a CONFIDENTIAL Security Clearance. If your job requires you to have access to SECRET information, you would require to have a SECRET Security Clearance, etc. For military personnel, two things determine the level of security clearance required; your MOS/AFSC/Rating (Job), and your assignment. Many military MOS/AFSC/Rating's require access to classified information, regardless of where one is assigned. In other cases, the MOS/AFSC/Rating itself may not require a Security Clearance, but the particular location or unit that the person is assigned to would require giving access to classified information and material.

Having a certain level of Security Clearance does not mean one is authorized to view classified information. To have access to classified information, one must possess the necessary two elements: A level of Security Clearance, at least equal to the classification of the information AND an appropriate "need to know" the information in order to perform their duties. Just because someone has a SECRET Clearance, would not give them access to ALL Secret Information in the military. They would need to have a specific reason to know that information, before they could be granted access.

It's also worth mention that the Department of Defense (DoD) operates its security program separate from other government agencies, with its own procedures and standards. A TOP SECRET Clearance with the Department of Energy (DoE), for example, would not necessarily transfer to DoD.

In the military, only United States Citizens can be granted a Security Clearance.

How are security clearances granted?

Once it is determined that a military member requires a Security Clearance because of assignment or job, the individual is instructed to complete a Questionnaire for National Security Positions DoD requires that SF-86 form form be completed.

When completing the questionnaire, for CONFIDENTIAL and SECRET Clearances, it's necessary to provide information for the previous five years. For TOP SECRET Clearances, one must provide information for the previous ten years. It's important to note here that giving false information on a Security Document constitutes a violation of Title 18, United States Code, Section 101, and Article 107 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). Under the United States Code, one may be fined as well as imprisoned for a period of five years. Under the UCMJ, the maximum punishment includes reduction to the lowest enlisted grade, forfeiture of all pay and allowances, confinement for a period of five years, and a dishonorable discharge.

You may wish to note that page 10 of the SF-86 contains a statement which you sign authorizing release of ANY information about you to Security Clearance Investigators. This means that investigators can access any and all information about you, including sealed records, juvenile records, expunged records, and medical records.

Once you complete the ESPQ, the document is sent to the Defense Security Service (DSS) (formerly the Defense Investigative Service (DIS)). DSS is responsible for verifying the information and performing the actual background investigation. The level of investigation depends upon the level of access to be granted.

For CONFIDENTIAL and SECRET clearances:

  • A National Agency Check (NAC)-A computerized search of investigative files and other records held by federal agencies such as the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) and Office of Personnel Management (OPM).
  • A Local Agency Check (LAC)-A review of appropriate criminal history records held by local law enforcement agencies, such as police departments or sheriffs, with jurisdiction over the areas where you have resided, gone to school, or worked.
  • Financial checks - A review of your Credit Record.

For TOP SECRET clearances:

A Single Scope Background Investigation (SSBI) is performed which includes all of the above, plus:

  • Field interviews of references to include coworkers, employers, personal friends, educators, neighbors, and other appropriate individuals.
  • Checks of records held by employers, courts, and rental offices.
  • A subject interview - An interview with you by an investigator.

These inquiries are performed by one or more investigators who work in the geographic area where the information is to be obtained. NACs, however, may be performed electronically from a central location.

The Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency (DCSA) uses two types of investigators to conduct these investigations; DCSA Agents and Contractors. DCSA obtains investigative support through Contractors, such as MSM Security Services Corp, Omniplex World Services Inc.,Management Technology Corp (ManTech), Dyncorp (Information & Enterprise Technology Division), and Government Business Services Group (GBSG).

When conducting field interviews, the investigators will normally begin with individuals you list as references in the questionnaire. They then use those references to develop names of additional references, etc., ad infidium. These references will be asked questions about your honesty, reliability, and trustworthiness, and their opinion on whether you should be given access to classified information or assigned to a sensitive position or position of trust. Your references will also be asked questions about your past and present activities, employment history, education, family background, neighborhood activities, and finances. During the investigation the investigator(s) will try to determine if you have had any involvement with drugs, encounters with the police, or problem drinking habits, and other facts about your personal history. The investigator(s) will attempt to obtain both favorable and unfavorable information about your background so an adjudicator can make an appropriate determination.

The objective of the subject interview is to obtain a complete picture of you as an individual so that an adjudicator can determine whether you will be able to cope with having access to classified or sensitive information without becoming a security risk. Therefore, the interview will be wide-ranging and cover most aspects of your life. During the subject interview, expect to be questioned about your family background, past experiences, health, use of alcohol or drugs, financial affairs, foreign travel, and other pertinent matters.

What determines approval or disapproval?

It's important to note that Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency (DCSA) does not make any security clearance determinations or recommendations. DCSA simply gathers information. Once the information has been verified, and the investigations completed, DCSA presents the information to the specific military service's adjudicator authority (each military service has their own), who determine whether or not to grant the security clearance, using standards set by that particular military service.

It's impossible to say if any particular thing will result in denial of a security clearance. The adjudicators use the Adjudicator Guidelines to determine whether or not the individual can be trusted with our nation's secrets. Primarily, adjudicators look for honesty, trustworthiness, character, loyalty, financial responsibility, and reliability. On cases that contain significant derogatory information warranting additional action, the adjudicator may draft a request for additional investigation/information, or request psychiatric or alcohol and drug evaluation. Even so, adjudicators are not the final authority. All denials of clearances must be personally reviewed by a branch chief, or higher.

There are some factors which will positively result in the denial of a clearance. As a result of the Smith Amendment, the FY01 Defense Authorization Act amended Chapter 49 of Title 10, United States Code, and precluded the initial granting or renewal of a security clearance by (DoD) under the following four specific circumstances:

  1. An individual has been convicted in any court of the U.S. of a crime and sentenced to imprisonment for a term exceeding one year.
  2. An individual is (currently) an unlawful user of, or is addicted to, a controlled substance (as defined in section 102 or the Controlled Substances Act (21U.S.C. 802)).
  3. An individual is mentally incompetent, as determined by a mental health professional approved by the DoD.
  4. An individual has been discharged or dismissed from the armed forces under dishonorable conditions.

The statute also provides that the Secretary of Defense and the secretary of the military department concerned may authorize an exception to the provisions concerning convictions, dismissals and discharges from the armed force in meritorious cases.

How long does the process take?

It depends on several factors, and the type of investigation. In the past three years, DoD has had a significant backlog of security clearances and reinvestigations pending, most especially for TOP SECRET level access. In general, expect a CONFIDENTIAL or SECRET clearance to take between 1 and 3 months. A TOP SECRET will probably take between 4 and 8 months. However, some individuals have been waiting for the results of their TOP SECRET investigation for more than one year. In general, the more there is to investigate, the longer the investigation will take. 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.
  • Background information that is difficult to obtain or involves issues that require an expansion of your case.

If your technical training (AIT/Tech School/A-School) requires access to classified information, you may be assigned to do details (such as answering the phone in an office) while waiting for your Security Clearance to be granted. In some cases, you may be authorized to attend non-classified portions of the training while awaiting the results of your security clearance application.

Can I appeal a clearance denial or revocation?

If you are denied a security clearance, or an assignment to a sensitive position or a position of trust, or your current clearance or access is revoked, you have the right to appeal the adjudicative decision. Under such circumstances you will be provided a statement on the reason(s) why you are ineligible for the clearance and the procedures for filing an appeal. If you believe the information gathered about you during the investigation is misleading or inaccurate, you will be given the opportunity to correct or clarify the situation.

DoD maintains a web site which gives a good overview about past Security Clearance Appeal Decisions for DoD contractor personnel.

How long are security clearances valid?

A Periodic Reinvestigation (PR) is required every 5 years for a TOP SECRET Clearance, 10 years for a SECRET Clearance, or 15 years for a CONFIDENTIAL Clearance. However, civilian and military personnel of DoD can be randomly reinvestigated before they are due for a PR.

A security clearance is a valuable commodity outside of the military. This is because civilian companies who do classified work for DoD must bear the cost of security clearances for their employees, and clearance investigations can cost several thousands of dollars. Because of this, many DoD contractors give hiring preference to ex-military personnel with current clearances. However, you want to do your job-hunting right away, after separation. Once your clearance expires, you cannot simply request that DoD issue a new one, or conduct a Periodic Reinvestigation, simply to make your job-hunting prospects easier. To be issued a clearance, or to renew your clearance by DoD, your present duties/assignment, or pending duties/assignment must require such access.

Are polygraph (lie detector) tests required?

The use of the polygraph for any Department of Defense program is governed by DoD Directive 5210.48 and DoD Regulation 5320.48R.

A polygraph examination is mandatory for employment by or assignment to the DCSA and the National Security Agency (NSA), and for assignment (or loan) of DoD personnel to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). It is also mandatory for some SCI and SAP access programs.

Additionally, the polygraph may be used for any other personnel security investigations to resolve serious credible derogatory information, and then only with the consent of the examine. No adverse action may be taken solely on the basis of a polygraph examination that indicates deception, except upon the written finding by the Secretary or Under Secretary of Defense, or a Secretary of one of the military departments, that the classified information in question is of such extreme sensitivity that access under the circumstances poses an unacceptable risk to the national security.

Polygraph examinations may also be used to supplement investigations of federal felonies, of unauthorized disclosure of classified information or of alleged acts of terrorism, or when requested by the subject of a personnel security investigation, for exculpation with respect to allegations arising in the investigation.

The DoD regulation details the exact manner in which the examination must be conducted. No relevant question may be asked during the polygraph examination that has not been reviewed with the person to be examined before the examination, and all questions must have a special relevance to the inquiry. Certain "validating" questions may be asked without prior disclosure to establish a baseline from which the examiners can judge the validity of the answers to the relevant questions. The probing of a person's thoughts or beliefs, or questions on subjects that are not directly relevant to the investigation, such as religious or political beliefs or beliefs and opinions about racial matters, are prohibited.

See Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency (DCSA), US Army and Department of Defense (DoD) websites.

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