Security Clearance To Access National Secrets

The Basics Of Security Clearances in the Military

Top secret confidential file
••• David Gould/Photographer's Choice RF/Getty Images

The military possesses information and technology which could be helpful to our enemies. Unauthorized release of this information can compromise national security. "Loose lips sink ships" is an age old saying concerning OPSEC - Operational Security. 

A security clearance investigation ensures that you are eligible for access to national security information. The investigation focuses on your character and conduct, emphasizing such factors as honesty, trustworthiness, reliability, financial responsibility, criminal activity, emotional stability, and other pertinent areas. All investigations consist of checks of national records and credit checks; some investigations also include interviews with individuals who know the candidate for the clearance as well as the candidate himself/herself.

Types of Security Clearances

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

  • Confidential: Unauthorized disclosure could cause damage to the national security.
  • Secret:  Unauthorized disclosure could cause serious damage to the national security.
  • Top Secret: Unauthorized disclosure could 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.

Depending on the level of security, you will need a lie detector test to advance in the process. Polygraph examination can be performed when there is a security investigation, but you have to give your permission for it to be done. It can also be done when they are investigating federal felonies including  the release of classified information or an act of terrorism.

You may need one of these levels of security clearance to hold different jobs in the military and with civilian contractors. You can apply for these jobs if you don't have a clearance, but they will give preference to those who already have a security clearance. The government pays the cost of clearances for military personnel and civilian government employees. But the law requires that contractors pay most of the costs of obtaining clearances for their employees. That's why contractors often advertise for applicants who already hold a valid clearance.

Additionally, it saves them time, as they don't have to wait for months for the new employee to obtain a clearance, and begin to do the job they were hired for.

You cannot simply request a clearance for yourself and offer to pay for it. To obtain a clearance you have to have a job which requires one (either by being in the military, or a government civilian job, or a contractor job).

For military personnel, two things determine the level of security clearance required; your MOS/AFSC/Rating (Job), and your assignment.  Many military jobs require access to classified information, regardless of where you are assigned. In other cases, the job 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. 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, for example, would not necessarily transfer to DOD.

In the United States military, only United States citizens can be granted a DOD security clearance.

"Need to Know"

Merely having a certain level of security clearance does not mean you are authorized to view classified information. To have access to classified information, you 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 you have a Secret Clearance, you would have access to all Secret Information in the military. You would need to have a specific reason to know that information before you were granted access.

Security Clearance Background Investigations

Security Clearance Background Investigations for the Department of Defense (DOD) are conducted by the Defense Security Service (DSS). This includes background investigations for military personnel, civilian personnel who work for DOD, and military contractors. The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) conducts Security Clearance Investigations for most other branches of the Federal Government.

Once it is determined that a military member requires a security clearance because of assignment or job, you are instructed to complete a Security Clearance Background Investigation Questionnaire. It is done with an electronic form. You'll need to provide information for the previous five years for Confidential and Secret clearances and for the previous 10 years for Top Secret clearances. 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).


The form contains a statement which you sign authorizing release of any information about you to security clearance investigators. That includes sealed records, juvenile records, expunged records, and medical records.

Form SF86

Answering all of the questions on the SF86 accurately is evidence of your reliability and honesty. Your clearance could be denied if you conceal information. Once granted, your clearance could be revoked if they later discovered you had been dishonest in filling out the forms.

If you realize after you submit the form that you made a mistake or omitted something important, tell your Security Officer, Recruiter, MEPS Security Interviewer, or the DSS Investigator when you are interviewed. If you do not do so, the error or omission could be held against you during the adjudicative process.

Once you complete the questionnaire, it is sent to the Defense Security Service (DSS). They verify the information and perform the actual background investigation. The level of  the investigation depends upon the level of access to be granted.

For Confidential and Secret Clearances, they will do a National Agency Check (NAC)  -- a search of records held by federal agencies including the FBI and OPM, a Local Agency Check (LAC) -- a review of criminal history records, and a financial check 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, checks of records held by employers, courts, and rental offices, and a subject interview of you by an investigator.

NACs may be performed electronically from a central location. DSS uses both DSS Agents and private detective agencies in the local area.

Field Interviews with References

Investigators will do field interviews with the references you listed on the questionnaire and use them to develop more references to interview. They will be asked questions about your character and whether you should be given access to classified information or assigned to a sensitive position. The interviews are wide-ranging with questions about your activities, job history, education, family, finances, drugs, alcohol problems, and police encounters.

Approval or Disapproval

Each military service has their own adjudicator that receives the information from DSS and decides whether to grant the security clearance. They apply their specific guidelines to your case. They may request further investigation of problem areas. Adjudicators are not the final authority. All denials of clearances must be personally reviewed by a branch chief or higher authority.

Typical Information relating to the following issues may be considered significant in relation to holding a clearance:

  • Allegiance to the U.S.
  • Foreign Influence
  • Foreign preference
  • Sexual Behavior
  • Personal Conduct
  • Financial Considerations
  • Alcohol Consumption
  • Drug Involvement
  • Emotional, Mental and Personality Disorders
  • Criminal Conduct
  • Security Violations
  • Outside Activities Misuse of Information Technology Systems

Law requires denial of a clearance for these circumstances:

  • Convicted in any court of the U.S. of a crime and sentenced to imprisonment for a term exceeding one year.
  • Using a controlled substance (as defined in section 102 or the Controlled Substances Act.
  • If you are mentally incompetent as determined by a mental health professional approved by the DoD
  • If you have a dishonorable discharge from the military.
  • Exceptions can be granted by the highest authorities.

In general, expect a Confidential or Secret clearance to take between one and three months. A Top Secret will probably take between four and eight months but can take more than a year. It takes longer if you've lived and worked in many locations, have foreign travel, have relatives in foreign countries, and you have issues that need further investigation.

A Periodic Reinvestigation (PR) is required every five years for a Top Secret Clearance, 10 years for a Secret Clearance, or 15 years for a Confidential Clearance. But you may be subject to a random investigation at any time.

When a security clearance is inactivated (ie, when someone gets out of the military, or quits from their government civilian job or contractor job), it can be reactivated within 24 months, as long as the last background investigation falls within the above time-frame.

Having a security clearance can give you hiring preference with DOD contractors once you leave the military, as it saves them the expense of conducting one. Once your clearance expires, you will have to have present or pending duties to get it renewed.