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

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You might need a security clearance for a government, military, or civilian-military job, or to work at a private-sector company that contracts with the government or military. Here are answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about security clearance for Americans.

Why PSIs and Security Clearances Are Necessary

A Personnel Security Investigation (PSI) is an inquiry into an individual's loyalty, character, trustworthiness, and reliability to ensure that he or she is eligible to access classified information or for an appointment to a sensitive position or position of trust. 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 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 or have been dishonest or demonstrated a lack of integrity that has caused others to doubt their reliability

How Security Clearance Is Granted

An adjudicator, who is employed by one of the Department of Defense (DoD) Central Adjudication Facilities (CAF), reviews the results of the Personnel Security Investigation 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.

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. 

Other federal investigative agencies also conduct background investigations on federal government and government contractor employees. The DoD will usually accept such an investigation as the basis for a security clearance depending on when it was conducted and what events may have occurred since the time of the prior investigation.

Obtaining Job Security Clearance

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.

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. There are four basic types of security clearances for national security positions. 

Job Security Clearances

Which security clearance you'll be granted depends on the sensitivity of the information to which you'll be privy. Basic levels of security clearance include:

  • Sensitive Compartmented Information (SCI) - Access to all intelligence information and material that require 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. Once you complete the document, you must 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 completely filled out.

The Purpose of All the Questions

The EPSQ can seem daunting, but you will find that most questions are fairly straightforward and provide DSS and adjudicative personnel with the necessary information about relevant aspects of your life.

When you fill out the EPSQ:

  1. Read through the instructions and questions to find out what is required.
  2. Collect the necessary information.
  3. Allow plenty of time to complete the form.
  4. 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.

References and What They Will Be Asked

Your references should be people who have known you for a significant period of your life. 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 your PSI, the investigator(s) will need to know 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.

What the PSI Process Includes

A PSI consists of one or more of the following inquiries:

  • 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 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.

Questions Asked During 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. Remember all these questions are asked for a purpose. The investigator is experienced in conducting these interviews. It is unlikely that anything you say will cause him or her shock or surprise. Be as candid as possible. The investigator will try to put you at ease if you become upset or uncomfortable.

It is in your best interest to answer the investigator's questions for an adjudicator to reach a valid decision on your suitability to access classified information or be appointed to a sensitive position or position of trust.

Obligation to Be Interviewed

Subject interviews are an integral part of most PSIs conducted by DSS. 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.

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 what you were seeking to conceal would not have resulted in an unfavorable clearance 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.

In general, it's just not worth it.

The Authorized Access of Personal Records By DSS

DSS can look at records that are relevant to the guidelines within the PSI program. When you fill out the required security forms and sign a general release statement, DSS will then have the authority to conduct your PSI.

Some records are public information and do not require a specific release. However, you will be asked to sign a specific release statement during the subject interview if DSS is required to check creditor or medical records on you.

Why Some Investigations Take Longer Than Others

If you do not provide accurate information or an answer to all of the questions on the security questionnaire, DSS will not be able to open the PSI on you.

Once the case is opened, however, it 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 by doing the following:

  • Provide Accurate Information on Your Security Questionnaire-Follow the instructions and answer all of the questions on the form.
  • Use the Electronic Personnel Security Questionnaire (EPSQ)-At this time employees of DoD activities are required to submit an EPSQ instead of a paper form to enable DSS to process requests for PSIs more efficiently.
    Using EPSQ can reduce the time it takes to conduct the investigation on you because:
    1. The form is electronically forwarded rather than mailed to DSS.
    2. The information you enter on the form is electronically validated to prevent delays due to inadvertent errors or omissions.
    You may obtain more information about EPSQ from the DSS website at www.dss.mil, by e-mailing a request for an EPSQ brochure to brochures@mail.dss.mil, or by calling the DSS Customer Call Center at 1-888-347-5213.
  • 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 To Another Duty Station, 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 Scoped Background Investigation (SSBI) or a 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, please inform the security officer who processed your EPSQ so he or she can take the appropriate action. If a DSS investigator interviews you before you relocate, also inform him or her of your impending transfer.

    Unfair Discrimination

    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.

    Safeguards in Place to Ensure Accuracy and Protect Privacy

    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.

    Notification of Being Granted Security Clearance

    If you receive 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. To find out the status of your security clearance, contact your security officer.

    Appealing 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 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.