How to Get Security Clearance for Employment

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Candidates for jobs will notice that some vacancies mention that applicants must be eligible for a security clearance or must already possess a security clearance. Security clearances are primarily required by government employers and private contractors who will have access to sensitive information that has a bearing on national security. Here's information on how to get a security clearance for employment.

Levels of Security Clearance

There are 3 common levels of security clearance: Confidential, Secret, and Top Secret.

A Confidential clearance is the easiest to obtain and covers positions where the disclosure of classified information would cause damage to national security.

A Secret clearance indicates that the type of confidential information covered would cause serious damage to national security if divulged.

If an individual would be able to access classified information of the greatest sensitivity, then Top Secret clearance would be required.

The Security Clearance Process

Applicants for a security clearance undergo a thorough evaluation to determine if they are loyal to the U.S. government, free from influence by foreign individuals, honest, trustworthy, morally upright, mentally and psychologically sound, and have avoided criminal activity. Only U.S. citizens are eligible for a security clearance.

The process begins with the applicant completing the Personnel Security Questionnaire (SF-86) through the e-Quip application site.

The next phase of the process involves an investigation conducted by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) or other investigation service provider (ISP).

Agents conducting the investigation will interview a broad range of the candidate's contacts, possibly including current and past employers, neighbors, business associates, former classmates, fraternity/sorority members, and other individuals who may have associated with the applicant.

The applicant will be interviewed and perhaps re-interviewed as additional information is gathered to clarify any potential issues of concern. Candidates should make certain that they are totally honest and inclusive as they complete the SF-86 and answer interview questions since discrepancies uncovered in the investigation may be grounds for disqualification.

The final stage of the investigative process involves a review of all the information gathered to determine eligibility for a specified clearance. The entire investigation and review will usually take 3-4 months at the minimum.

Interim Eligibility

According to the Defense Security Service (an agency of the Department of Defense), all applicants for a personnel security clearance submitted by a cleared contractor will be routinely considered for an interim eligibility. The Personnel Security Management Office for Industry reviews the Personnel Security Questionnaire (SF-86) and other files and systems.

The interim eligibility is issued only when access to classified information is clearly consistent with the national security interest of the United States. The interim eligibility is issued at the same time as the initiation of the investigation and will generally remain in effect until the investigation is completed. At that time, the applicant is considered for a final eligibility.

Statuses in the Review Process

The Defense Security Service issues the following statuses throughout the investigation to let candidates know what is happening during the process:

Received – The investigative service provider (ISP) has acknowledged receipt of the investigation request and will be reviewing it for acceptability.

Unacceptable – The ISP determined the investigation request to be deficient. The applicant will then receive a message with the reason the request was rejected. If the employee still requires a clearance, a new investigation request will need to be initiated and submitted with the corrected information.

Scheduled – The ISP has determined the investigation request to be acceptable and the investigation is currently ongoing/open.

Closed – The ISP has completed the investigation and the investigation has been sent for adjudication.

Delays in Investigations

The following are the most common reasons given by the Defense Security Service for a delay in an eligibility determination at the investigation request stage:

Financial Considerations. For example, a history of not meeting financial obligations or an inability or unwillingness to satisfy debts.

Emotional, Mental, and Personality Disorders. For example, information that suggests that an individual has a condition or treatment that may indicate a defect in judgment, reliability, or stability.

Foreign Preference. For example, possession of a valid foreign passport.

Criminal Conduct. For example, felony arrests, multiple misdemeanor arrests, or imprisonment for over one year.

Drug involvement. For example, recent drug use, illegal drug possession, or drug dependence.

How Long Security Clearances Are In Effect

Security clearances are active only for the time when an individual occupies the original job for which the clearance was designated. A clearance holder may be re-investigated at any time, but a formal review is required after 5 years for a Top Secret clearance, 10 years for a Secret clearance, and 15 years for a Confidential clearance.

A clearance can be reactivated without going through the entire investigative process again, as long as the break in employment is fewer than 2 years and the original investigation is not more than 5, 10, or 15 years old for the Top Secret, Secret, and Confidential categories, respectively.