What is a security clearance for employment, and how do you get one? Job hunters may notice that some vacancies mention applicants must be eligible for a security clearance or must already possess a security clearance in order to be hired.
Security clearances are primarily required by government employers and private contractors who have access to sensitive information that has a bearing on national security. Some private sector employers also require clearances.
Depending on the job, the requirements may include having a current or active clearance. You can’t apply for a security clearance on your own. Applicants must be sponsored by the federal government or a company with a contract requiring classified work.
Who Needs a Security Clearance
When you’re applying for a federal government job, the background check process will start after you have accepted a tentative job offer. The job offer will be conditional on you obtaining the required clearance.
You will need to answer questions about where you’ve lived, worked, gone to school, and any military history or police records. For jobs that require a security clearance, you’ll need to provide a minimum of 10 years of personal information.
For private sector jobs, candidates who have an active or current security clearance are in demand for positions in many industries.
Software developers, engineers, and applicants with proficiency in foreign languages are sought after by employers.
If the applicant doesn’t have a current clearance, and one is required for the job, the application process would be the same as for a federal government or defense contractor job.
Levels of Security Clearance
There are three standard 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 highest sensitivity, then a Top Secret clearance would be required.
There are also two categories of classified information that require additional handling and access restrictions:
- Sensitive compartmented information (SCI), which includes intelligence sources, methods, and processes.
- Special access programs (SAPs), which are highly sensitive projects and programs.
These categories are for classified information that has been deemed particularly vulnerable, and eligibility standards and investigative requirements for access to SCI and SAPs clearances are higher than for other clearances.
How the Security Clearance Process Works
Applicants for a security clearance undergo a thorough evaluation to determine if they are loyal to the U.S. government and are free from influence by foreign individuals, are honest, trustworthy, morally upright, and 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. Applicants can only access the system if they have been invited to do so by an official at their sponsoring agency.
The next phase of the process involves an investigation conducted by the government's Office of Personnel Management, the Defense Department, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence or another investigation service provider (ISP), depending on the position.
Agents conducting the investigation will interview a broad range of the candidate's contacts, potentially 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 possibly re-interviewed as additional information is gathered—to clarify any potential issues that could affect the clearance.
Candidates should be sure that they are 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 specific clearance.
Interim Eligibility Pending Approval
The duration of the entire investigation and review will vary, but the average length of time is 120 days. However, in some cases, it may be possible to get an interim security clearance and start work in a temporary capacity until the background check process is complete.
According to the Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency (an agency of the Department of Defense), all applicants for a personnel security clearance submitted by a cleared contractor will be considered for interim eligibility. The Personnel Security Management Office for Industry reviews the Personnel Security Questionnaire (SF-86) and other files and systems.
Interim eligibility is issued only when access to classified information is clearly consistent with the national security interests of the United States. It 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 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 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 why 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 ithas been sent for adjudication.
Delays in Investigations
The most common reasons an investigation could be delayed include security application packages that are not complete, issues with fingerprints, and investigations that involve coverage of extensive overseas activities. To expedite the process, be sure to include all the required documents with the application.
Why Would an Applicant be Denied a Security Clearance?
Various reasons exist for why someone may be denied a security clearance. The most important factors in an investigation are the individual's honesty, candor, and thoroughness in the completion of their security clearance forms. Every case is individually assessed, using the Security Executive Directive 4: National Security Adjudicative Guidelines, to determine whether the granting or continuing of eligibility for a security clearance is clearly consistent with the interests of national security.
The adjudicative guidelines include: allegiance to the United States; foreign influence; foreign preference; sexual behavior; personal conduct; financial considerations; alcohol consumption; drug involvement and substance misuse; emotional, mental, and personality disorders; criminal conduct; handling protected information; outside activities; and misuse of information technology.
How to Appeal if Denied a Clearance
If you are denied a security clearance, or your continued eligibility for access to classified information is revoked, you will be informed why and given a procedure for filing an appeal. You will also be able to address any derogatory information that was gathered during the investigation and correct or clarify the details.
How Long Security Clearances Are in Effect
Security clearances are active only for the time an individual holds the original job for which the clearance was designated. A clearance holder may be reinvestigated at any time, but a formal review is required after five years for a Top Secret clearance, ten years for a Secret clearance, and fifteenyears for a Confidential clearance.
A clearance may be reactivated in certain cases without going through the entire investigative process again.
However, the break in employment must have lasted less than two years, and the original investigation cannot be more than five, ten, or fifteenyears old for the Top Secret, Secret, and Confidential categories, respectively.
More Information on Clearances
Before you apply for a security clearance, be sure to review the latest guidelines and updates from the U.S. Department of State so that you have current information about requirements, the process, and approval.
The information contained in this article is not legal advice and is not a substitute for such advice. State and federal laws change frequently, and the information in this article may not reflect your own state’s laws or the most recent changes to the law.