Security Clearances: Get the Answer to What, Who, When , and Why


by Sgt. James Humbucker

Any person who has worked or will work for an organization that requires access to restricted information more than likely has or will need a security clearance.
The largest source of individuals with security clearances is the military population. Once this group finishes their military career, the majority pack up their uniform, military tax preparation software, and security clearance to look for a civilian job. There are over 200,000 military personnel transitioning out of the service each year. These separating military members look for employment in fields such as the commercial defense-related fields where they can utilize their expert military training and technical skills. In addition, these jobs generally require background checks due to the sensitive nature of the materials the individual handles on a daily basis – this is where the former military member’s clearance becomes a valuable commodity.
The importance of a security clearance does not stop with defense contractors. The medical, telecommunications, education and financial fields (to name a few) have an increasing number of jobs where company information needs to be guarded and HR managers seek out individuals with current security clearances.
Why is a security clearance so valuable?
Experts project that a security clearance can increase your salary anywhere from $5,000 to $15,000, and in some cases, even more. When employers do not have to invest time and money into a background check and the paperwork that goes with that, the saved money often goes back into the employee’s salary. Former military personnel who have security clearances are very appealing to employers. In addition to the thorough background check that has already been completed, these employees are disciplined, dependable and have strong leadership skills – priceless attributes in today’s market.
What is a security clearance?
Certain federal employees and certain employees in the private sector are required to have security clearances because their job requires them to have access to classified documents. Various other work takes place in secured facilities. The occupant of any such job is said to hold a “sensitive” position, defined as “any position, by virtue of its nature, could bring about a material adverse effect on national security”. At any given time, there are about 3 million people with security clearances. In addition, there are about 1.5 million security clearances in the hands of private contracting or consulting firms. Contractors participate in what is called the industrial security program administered by the Defense Industrial Security Clearance Office (DISCO) which is part of the Joint Information Systems Technology (JIST), a military agency.
One out of every thirty Americans has some sort of security clearance. It has been estimated that one out of every thousand of these can be expected to compromise the secrets they are entrusted with. Some need money, some can be blackmailed, some are disgruntled and want revenge and some are just sloppy. American industry is a prime target for espionage as well as domestic terrorism and white collar crime.
A security clearance is technically a license issued by the head of a department, division or agency of the federal government. The type of security clearance that one can be approved for also depends upon the department, division, or agency involved. For classification purposes, the types of security clearances are:

  • Confidential
  • Secret
  • Top Secret
    • Sensitive Compartmentalized Information (SCI)
    • Single Scope Background Investigation (SSBI)

The Confidential security clearance is the easiest to obtain. Whereas other classifications will almost always involve a background check by the Defense Investigative Service (DIS), clearance programs for a confidential classification may be operated by the agencies themselves, like the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Department of Energy (DoE), the Department of State, etc.Secret (sometimes called “Ordinary Secret”) and Top Secret classifications almost always have some amount of military involvement in the clearance process. These types of licenses are typically found in agencies like the CIA or NSA. One of the differences between Secret and Top Secret is how “expansive” the background check is, i.e., how far and deep the investigation goes into your dependents, friends and relatives.
SCI classifications are only cleared for a few people and the background investigation process as well as the continual monitoring is extremely intensive.
The amount of time it takes to receive a security clearance is usually between six months to one year, if all goes well. Rarely, if ever, are temporary clearances granted during the review process.
Types of security clearances:
The scope of investigative work needed to grant a security clearance depends on the level of clearance being requested. There are three basic levels of security classification:

This refers to material, which, if improperly disclosed, could be reasonably expected to cause some measurable damage to the national security. The vast majority of military personnel are given this very basic level of clearance. This level needs to be reinvestigated every fifteen years.*
The unauthorized disclosure of secret information could be expected to cause serious damage to the national security. This level is reinvestigated every ten years.*
Individuals with this clearance have access to information or material that could be expected to cause exceptionally grave damage to the national security if it was released without authorization. This level needs to be reinvestigated every five years.*
* Reinvestigations are more important than the original investigation because those individuals who have held clearances longer are more likely to be working with increasingly critical information.

Who can get a security clearance?
Any person who is employed by an organization that is sending, receiving, or developing information that the government has deemed as important to National security will need to obtain a security clearance.
Currently, there are more than 500,000 background investigations pending for security clearance approval. When an individual is going through the process for clearance, it may take up to a year before a determination is made. This makes a military candidate who already has clearance even more appealing to a hiring company. If the company hires a person who will need to gain a clearance, they may wait over a year before the person is eligible to work on the project for which they were hired. This is a lot of lost time and money to a company. If they can identify a person who has the necessary clearances, such as a candidate with a military background, that person immediately becomes more valuable.
How do you get a security clearance?
There are three main phases to receiving a security clearance:
The first phase is the application process. This involves verification of U.S. citizenship, fingerprinting and completion of the Personnel Security Questionnaire (SF-86).
The second phase involves the actual investigation of your background. Most of the background check is conducted by the Defense Security Service (DSS).
The final phase is the adjudication phase. The results from the investigative phase are reviewed. The information that has been gathered is evaluated based on thirteen factors determined by the Department of Defense (DoD). Some examples of areas they consider are; allegiance to the United States, criminal and personal conduct, and substance abuse or mental disorders. Clearance is granted or denied following this evaluation process.
How long are Security Clearances valid?
A Periodic Reinvestigation (PR) is required every 5 years for a TOP SECRET Clearance, 10 years for a SECRET Clearance or 15 years for a CONFIDENTIAL Clearance. However, civilian and military personnel of DOD can be randomly reinvestigated before they are due for a PR.
A security clearance is a valuable commodity outside of the military. This is because civilian companies who do classified work for the Dept. of Defense (DoD), or a national security related contract, must bear the cost of security clearances for their employees and clearance investigations can cost several thousands of dollars. Because of this, many DoD contractors give hiring preference to ex-military personnel with current clearances. However, you want to do your job-hunting right away, after separation. Once your clearance expires, you cannot simply request that DoD issue a new one or conduct a Periodic Reinvestigation, simply to make your job-hunting prospects easier. To be issued a clearance, or to renew your clearance by DoD, your present duties/assignment, or pending duties/assignment must require such access.
Application Procedures
Once it is determined that a military member requires a Security Clearance because of assignment or job, the individual is instructed to complete a Security Clearance Background Investigation Questionnaire. DoD requires that this form be completed by use of a computer software program, known as ESPQ, instead of the old paper form, the SF-86. You can download the software to use on your home computer (if you reside in the United States).
However, it’s not necessary to download and install the software in order to see what questions are asked in the questionnaire, see ESPQ SF-86 Questionnaire Worksheet (Word.doc file) and SF-86 (PDF File).
When completing the questionnaire, for CONFIDENTIAL and SECRET Clearances, it’s necessary to provide information for the previous five years. For TOP SECRET Clearances, one must provide information for the previous ten years. It’s important to note here that 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). Under the United States Code, one may be fined as well as imprisoned for a period of five years. Under the UCMJ, the maximum punishment includes reduction to the lowest enlisted grade, forfeiture of all pay and allowances, confinement for a period of five years and a dishonorable discharge.
You may wish to note that page 10 of the SF-86 contains a statement which you sign authorizing release of ANY information about you to Security Clearance Investigators. This means that investigators can access any and all information about you, including sealed records, juvenile records, expunged records and medical records.
Once you complete the ESPQ, the document is sent to the Defense Security Service (DSS) (formerly the Defense Investigative Service (DIS)). DSS is responsible for verifying the information and performing the actual background investigation. The level of investigation depends upon the level of access to be granted.
For CONFIDENTIAL and SECRET clearances:
A National Agency Check (NAC)-A computerized 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 – A review 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 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.
The DSS uses two types of investigators to conduct these investigations; DSS Agents and Contractors. DSS obtains investigative support through Contractors, such as MSM Security Services Corp, Omniplex World Services Inc., Management Technology Corp (ManTech), Dyncorp (Information & Enterprise Technology Division) and Government Business Services Group (GBSG).
When conducting field interviews, the investigators normally begin with individuals you list as references in the questionnaire. They then use those references to develop names of additional references, etc., ad infidium. 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 the investigation the investigator(s) will try to determine 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.
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.
What determines approval or disapproval?
It’s important to note that Defense Security Service (DSS) does not make any security clearance determinations or recommendations. DSS simply gathers information. Once the information has been verified, and the investigations completed, DSS presents the information to the specific military service’s adjudicator authority (each military service has their own), who determine whether or not to grant the security clearance, using standards set by that particular military service.
It’s impossible to say if any particular thing will result in denial of a security clearance. The adjudicators use the Adjudicator Guidelines to determine whether or not the individual can be trusted with our nation’s secrets. Primarily, adjudicators look for honesty, trustworthiness, character, loyalty, financial responsibility and reliability. On cases that contain significant derogatory information warranting additional action, the adjudicator may draft a request for additional investigation/information, or request psychiatric or alcohol and drug evaluation. Even so, adjudicators are not the final authority. All denials of clearances must be personally reviewed by a branch chief, or higher.
Because of a recent change in the law, there are some factors which will positively result in the denial of a clearance. As a result of the Smith Amendment, the FY01 Defense Authorization Act amended Chapter 49 of Title 10, United States Code, and precluded the initial granting or renewal of a security clearance by (DoD) under the following four specific circumstances:
(1) An individual has been convicted in any court of the U.S. of a crime and sentenced to imprisonment for a term exceeding one year.
(2) An individual is (currently) an unlawful user of, or is addicted to, a controlled substance (as defined in section 102 or the Controlled Substances Act (21U.S.C. 802))
(3) An individual is mentally incompetent, as determined by a mental health professional approved by the DoD
(4) An individual has been discharged or dismissed from the armed forces under dishonorable conditions.
The statute also provides that the Secretary of Defense and the secretary of the military department concerned may authorize an exception to the provisions concerning convictions, dismissals and discharges from the armed force in meritorious cases.
How long does the process take?
It depends on several factors, and the type of investigation. In the past three years, DoD has had a significant backlog of security clearances and reinvestigations pending, most especially for TOP SECRET level access. In general, expect a CONFIDENTIAL or SECRET clearance to take between 1 and 3 months. A TOP SECRET will probably take between 4 and 8 months. However, some individuals have been waiting for the results of their TOP SECRET investigation for more than one year. In general, the more there is to investigate, the longer the investigation will take. Expect the investigation to 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.

If your technical training (AIT/Tech School/A-School) requires access to classified information, you may be assigned to do details (such as answering the phone in an office) while waiting for your Security Clearance to be granted. In some cases, you may be authorized to attend non-classified portions of the training while awaiting the results of your security clearance application.
Can I appeal 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 on 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.
DoD maintains a web site which gives a good overview about past Security Clearance Appeal Decisions for DoD contractor personnel.
Are polygraph (lie detector) tests required?
The use of the polygraph for any Department of Defense program is governed by DoD Directive 5210.48 and DoD Regulation 5320.48R.
A polygraph examination is mandatory for employment by or assignment to the DSS and the National Security Agency (NSA) and for assignment (or loan) of DoD personnel to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA ). It is also mandatory for some SCI and SAP access programs.
Additionally, the polygraph may be used for any other personnel security investigations to resolve serious credible derogatory information and then only with consent. No adverse action may be taken solely on the basis of a polygraph examination that indicates deception, except upon the written finding by the Secretary or Under Secretary of Defense, or a Secretary of one of the military departments, that the classified information in question is of such extreme sensitivity that access under the circumstances poses an unacceptable risk to the national security.
Polygraph examinations may also be used to supplement investigations of federal felonies, of unauthorized disclosure of classified information or of alleged acts of terrorism, or when requested by the subject of a personnel security investigation, for exculpation with respect to allegations arising in the investigation.
The DoD regulation details the exact manner in which the examination must be conducted. No relevant question may be asked during the polygraph examination that has not been reviewed with the person to be examined before the examination, and all questions must have a special relevance to the inquiry. Certain “validating” questions may be asked without prior disclosure to establish a baseline from which the examiners can judge the validity of the answers to the relevant questions. The probing of a person’s thoughts or beliefs, or questions on subjects that are not directly relevant to the investigation, such as religious or political beliefs or beliefs and opinions about racial matters, are prohibited.
The Defense Industry
National security ultimately depends on protecting science and industry, so lots of security clearances are involved with companies working on defense-related projects. It doesn’t matter if the company is holding a government contract or not; any R&D venture needs to be protected. The frequency of companies holding regular government contracts is growing, however. Here’s a top ten list:
Primary Defense Contractors:

  1. Boeing
  2. General Dynamics
  3. General Electric
  4. General Motors
  5. Grumman
  6. Lockheed
  7. Martin Marietta
  8. McDonnel Douglas
  9. Raytheon
  10. United Technologies

Expect to see the highest security countermeasures in the above companies. However, there are numerous other companies involved in activities that may need to be protected. The following is a list of the eighteen (18) technology areas of the U.S. that have been the most common targets of espionage:
Militarily Critical Technology List (MCTL):
Aeronautics Systems
Armaments and Energetic Materials
Chemical and Biological Systems
Directed and Kinetic Energy Systems
Ground Systems
Guidance, Navigation, and Vehicle Control
Information Systems
Information Warfare
Manufacturing and Fabrication
Marine Systems
Nuclear Systems
Power Systems
Sensors and Lasers
Signature Control
Space Systems
Weapons Effects and Countermeasures
Security Classification and Code Words
The Intelligence Community operates on the basis of CODE WORDS for just about everything. There is a technical distinction between a code word and a nickname. A code word is usually a single, five-letter word selected from a list contained in a document known as JANAP 299 (Joint Army, Navy, Air Force Publication). A code word always is assigned a classified meaning. A nickname usually consists of two words and is assigned an unclassified meaning.
TOP SECRET UMBRA, for example, indicates that information about the operation with the code word “umbra” is top secret. Employees may have a nickname for this operation like “spoke wheel” which implies that it’s got something to do with transportation, and may or may not remind the employee of the cover story; in this case, the possible use of bicycle tires for something. Often, the nickname implies something the exact opposite of the real operation: SKYBORNE for an underseas operation, e.g., or WATERLOG for an space operation.
Sometimes, four-letter code words are used, like GYRO, for instance. Whenever you see a four letter code word, this usually means that the information it refers to was obtained from intercepted communications by top officials from foreign countries. Other four-letter code words refer to mail openings and information obtained from foreign books.
Classified documents are often labeled with all the associated code words; like TOP SECRET UMBRA GAMMA GYRO SKYBORNE WATERLOG. Each word may have a different security classification requirement. In this case, the employee would have to have the security clearance for each level. A clearance for GAMMA might not suffice for WATERLOG. This has resulted in the commonly-seen whiteout or blackout through certain sentences in reports, because the most classified material has been made unreadable.
See Defense Security Service (DSS), US Army and Department of Defense (DoD) websites.


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