A Guide to Security Clearance for U.S. Government Jobs

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In the U.S., employees often need a security clearance for a federal government, military, or civilian-military job, or to work at a private-sector company that contracts with the government or military. You can't apply for a security clearance on your own; a security officer or other authorized representative of your employer must request it on your behalf.

How Security Clearance Is Granted

Clearance is granted on the basis of a Personnel Security Investigation (PSI), an inquiry into an individual's loyalty, character, trustworthiness, and reliability to ensure that the person is eligible to access classified information or for an appointment to a sensitive position or position of trust. You should only be subject to a PSI if you will have access to classified information or be assigned to a sensitive position or a position of trust. 

The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) conducts the majority of clearances for a wide range of federal agencies, as well as private-sector companies working under government contracts. Other federal investigative agencies also conduct background investigations on federal government and government-contractor employees. An adjudicator employed by one of the Department of Defense's Central Adjudication Facilities (CAF) reviews the results of the PSI and compares it to established qualifying criteria for granting access to classified information or for an appointment to a sensitive position or position of trust.

Types of Job Security Clearances

The four basic types of security clearances for national security positions relate to the sensitivity of the information to which a person would be privy. The levels of security clearance include:

  • Sensitive Compartmented Information (SCI). Access to all intelligence information and material that requires special controls for restricted handling within compartmented channels
  • Top secret (TS). Access to sensitive information that has a high degree of secrecy, the unauthorized disclosure of which could place the nation in exceptionally grave danger (requires passing reinvestigation every five years)
  • Secret (S). Access to sensitive information for which unauthorized disclosure could endanger national security (requires passing reinvestigation every 10 years)
  • Confidential (C). Access to sensitive information for which unauthorized disclosure could impair or injure the national interest (requires passing reinvestigation every 15 years)

Basic security clearances might also include other qualifying terms to define them further. For example, TS/Crypto stands for a specialized top-secret, cryptography security clearance.

How the PSI Process Starts

If you are a candidate for a security clearance or a sensitive position or position of trust, you will be asked to complete an Electronic Personnel Security Questionnaire (EPSQ) to provide personal details on your background. After filling out the document, you forward it to your security officer, who will submit it to the Defense Security Service (DSS). Only a security officer or another designated official in your organization has the authority to submit security questionnaires directly to DSS.

Your investigation will be opened once DSS receives your EPSQ and validates that it is complete.

The EPSQ can seem daunting, but most questions are fairly straightforward and cover only the relevant aspects of your life. When you fill out the EPSQ:

  • Read through the instructions and questions to find out what is required.
  • Collect the necessary information.
  • Allow plenty of time to complete the form.
  • Answer all of the questions.

Failure to complete the form correctly may delay the opening or completion of your PSI and the adjudication of your case.

If you realize after you have submitted the security questionnaire that you have made a mistake or omitted something important, tell your security officer or the investigator during your subject interview. If you do not acknowledge the mistake, the error or omission could result in an unfavorable adjudicative decision.

Steps in the PSI Process

A PSI consists of one or more of the following:

  • A National Agency Check (NAC): A 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
  • Field interviews of references, including co-workers, employers, personal friends, educators, neighbors, and other appropriate individuals
  • Checks of records held by employers, courts, and rental offices
  • A subject interview: A face-to-face discussion with 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.

When you fill out the required security forms and sign a general release statement, DSS then has the authority to conduct your PSI. DSS can look at any records it deems relevant to its investigation. Some records are public information. However, you will be asked to sign a specific release statement during the subject interview if DSS is required to check your credit report or medical records.

References and What They Will Be Asked

The investigators will need to know if you have had any involvement with drugs, encounters with the police, problems with drinking habits, and other facts about your personal history. Along with checking public or court records, they talk to the personal references you've provided on your EPSQ.

Your references should be people who have known you for a significant period of your life. They 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.

The Subject Interview

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. Be as candid as possible: It is unlikely that anything you say will cause the investigator to be shocked or surprised, and she will try to put you at ease if you become upset or uncomfortable.

Subject interviews are an integral part of most PSIs that DSS conducts. While your participation is completely voluntary, without the interview, DSS will be unable to conduct a thorough investigation on your background and an adjudicator may not be able to determine your suitability to access classified information or be assigned to a sensitive position or position of trust. As a result, you may be denied a security clearance or an appointment to a sensitive position.

An Obligation to Reveal Everything

If you conceal information on your security form or during your subject interview, an adjudicator may determine that you are unreliable and dishonest. In fact, your clearance could be denied for withholding information or purposely lying, even though the info you were seeking to conceal would not have resulted in an unfavorable determination.

Even if you obtain a clearance or are assigned to a sensitive position or position of trust, the initial adjudicative decision could be overturned at a later date when it is revealed that you lied or concealed information during the PSI. Federal agencies generally fire or disqualify employees who have materially and deliberately falsified such information. In addition, if you knowingly and willfully make material false statements during a PSI, you may be subject to prosecution for violating Title 18, U.S. Code, section 1001.

Why Some Investigations Take Longer

PSIs vary in the amount of time they take. In general, your investigation could 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

You can help DSS complete your PSI as quickly as possible if you:

  • Provide accurate information on your security questionnaire. Follow the instructions and answer all of the questions on the form.
  • Be as specific as possible. General entries, such as listing your employer as the U.S. Navy, should be avoided. List your actual duty stations and the dates assigned to each location.
  • If you are going to be transferred, inform your security officer. If you expect to be transferred to another duty station in the same organization within 60 days, indicate the location and approximate arrival date on the EPSQ. This information is especially important if you become a subject of a Single Scope Background Investigation (SSBI), or an SSBI periodic reinvestigation required for a Top Secret clearance, or access to Special Compartmented Information (SCI) that requires you to be interviewed by a DSS investigator who is assigned to the local area of your duty station. If you learn of the transfer after submitting an EPSQ, inform the security officer who processed your case. If a DSS investigator interviews you before you relocate, inform him of your impending transfer.

    Safeguards in Place

    All candidates for security clearances, sensitive positions, or positions of trust are treated impartially and consistently regardless of their gender, race, marital status, age, ethnic origin, religious affiliation, disability, or sexual orientation.

    All personnel involved in the PSI or adjudication process must meet the highest standards of integrity and personal conduct. All information received during the course of a PSI is scrupulously protected under the Privacy Act of 1974 and other applicable laws and statutes of the United States.

    Security Clearance Notices

    Your security officer can keep you updated as to the status of your PSI. If you are granted a security clearance, you will be notified by your employing organization. Before you can have access to classified information, your employing organization must also give you a security briefing.

    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 of 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.

    Why Security Clearances Are Necessary

    PSIs and security clearances are key elements in protecting the security of the United States. These tools are meant to counter the threats that may stem from:

    • Foreign intelligence services
    • Organizations or individuals who wish to overthrow or undermine the U.S. government through unconstitutional means, violent acts, or other terrorist activities
    • Individuals who may be susceptible to pressure or improper influence, or who have been dishonest or demonstrated a lack of integrity that has caused others to doubt their reliability

    You may obtain more information about EPSQ from the DSS website, by emailing a request for an EPSQ brochure to brochures@mail.dss.mil, or by phoning the DSS Customer Call Center at 1-888-347-5213.