How to Obtain a Security Clearance
Ever wanted to get into a building, especially a government building and was asked for security clearance? Maybe you saw someone flash a card and go in while you got stopped at the door.
Perhaps your case is different. You saw a highly-paying job and wanted to apply.
But one of the requirements listed was a “security clearance,” something you don’t have. But you want the job.
So what is a security clearance and how do you obtain it?
Much can be derived from the name and the examples given above. A security clearance is an approval to grant access.
More specifically, it is an eligibility to access classified information.
Since classified information is not for everyone, then access to it must be limited.
You’ll notice that this only applies to certain government agencies.
Examples of these are the Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security, the military and the like. Basically, any agency or department dealing with security matters will always employ access control.
This is for a good reason. These departments, agencies and contractors working with them, handle sensitive information. The kind of information which touches on national security.
Such information is intended only for those working on specific projects.
This is why when you apply for a job in such agencies, you will be required to have security clearance.
TYPES OF SECURITY CLEARANCE
Security clearance is divided into three types.
These differentiate the level of sensitivity of the information whose access is being requested.
At the same time, the type of clearance you have will determine which documents you can access.
The three types are:
Confidential is the lowest classification of sensitivity.
This however does not mean that the information is available to anyone with a clearance. It is possible to have the security clearance of a higher level but still be denied access to confidential information.
More on this in the classification categories section.
Confidential clearance gives you access to confidential information.
By definition, confidential information is that which when divulged, could cause damage to the national security of the US.
The marker Secret is used to denote information which when disclosed, could cause serious damage to the national security of the country.
Information classified as Secret is usually more confidential than that labeled Confidential.
For access to such material, you will need the “Secret” security clearance .
This is the highest level of confidentiality that can be labeled on any document or work environment. This is the label for controversial projects or government programs not intended for the general public.
Examples include nuclear weaponry, local and foreign intelligence and covert military operations. As such, the “Top Secret” clearance is undoubtedly the one which gives access to the most secretive and sensitive material.
The divulgence of “Top Secret” information would cause exceptionally grave damage to the national security of the country.
There are other special classifications which are more appropriately referred to as categories. These are often at the “Top Secret” level of classification since they refer to information requiring special handling.
These categories can also be found in departments dealing with “Confidential” or “Secret” information. These are not so much of classifications as they are categorization of confidential information. There are two main categories of classified information.
Sensitive Compartmented Information (SCI)
Work environments or documents under this category are highly-sensitive. In many cases, this is higher than “Top Secret” though resides in that classification. The distinction comes in what is known as “Need To Know.”
“Need To Know” describes data or material whose access is so sensitive that it can only be granted if necessary.
If your work or the task you are working on needs this information, then you will be given access to it. Otherwise, you should not have the knowledge of it.
Sensitive Compartmented Information (SCI) is mostly used within the intelligence and military circles. Having a “Top Secret” badge does not automatically grant you access to such information. You will have to be approved for the access by someone in charge of the information.
Often, these materials are accessed through code words. Code words are special words known only to a few people and they are used to allow individual access to sensitive information.
Special Access Programs (SAPs)
Special Access Programs are labels used to distinguish highly-secretive government projects. These are not open to all and require special badges to access.
Access to such is also controlled on a “Need To Know” basis.
The existence of these programs may not be acknowledged publicly due to their sensitivity.
These programs will usually be found in the Department of Defense though other security agencies may have them too.
OBTAINING A SECURITY CLEARANCE
The basics aside, how do you then obtain a security clearance? Where do you start and what is the process involved?
These are the questions we will answer in this section. You will learn the steps to follow and what happens in every step of the process.
Basically, there are four stages in obtaining a security clearance.
Find a Job Which Requires a Security Clearance
If you thought that a security clearance can be acquired by anyone for whatever reason, you are wrong.
As you may have noticed from the introductory part of this article, security clearance is only given to the person who needs it.
This means that you have to prove that you need it.
And how do you do that?
By showing that it is required for a job you have been hired to do.
This is where some get confused. This is not similar to a letter of recommendation which you look for in advance before applying for a job. Neither do you get clearance so as to be a more attractive job candidate.
Sure enough, having a security clearance will make you a more attractive candidate. But that clearance can only have come from a requirement of a previous job. An example of this is the military.
Those coming from a military career often have a security clearance that is still active. For that reason, they easily get security-related jobs because there is no wait for clearance to be obtained.
The process of getting clearance is itself a lengthy one because of the big number of applicants.
Fill the SF-86 Form
With a job which requires a security clearance, the next thing to do is apply for the clearance. You will do this by filling the Standard Form 86 (SF 86).
This questionnaire will be used to conduct background investigations to ascertain whether you should be allowed to hold a national security position.
It is required that you fill the form with truthful information.
Wherever you may not be sure what to write, it is advisable to check with an attorney. This is especially important if you feel like some questions are too personal.
The Investigations Stage
Being a security access badge, you can be sure it won’t be given without some background check being done on you.
It has to be determined that you are indeed a safe person to allow access to sensitive information.
Once your application is received, an investigation will be carried out. This will mostly be in the form of interviews with you and those close to you.
Those to be interviewed may also include neighbors, former classmates as well as former spouses or lovers where applicable.
Note: Investigations can be quite intrusive. They will seek to unearth any detail of your life which may pose a threat to your handling of sensitive information. More than any other details, those about former relationships rank highest in sensitivity.
Whereas you may prefer that such information remains unknown due to its embarrassing nature, you are required to be completely honest. Withholding information may cause you to be denied the clearance. And in some cases, you may be charged for perjury.
The Adjudication Stage
After the investigations have been carried out, next is the adjudication stage. This is the phase where your application is considered for approval.
Investigations are used to provide information and verify the truthfulness of the information submitted on the SF-86 form.
The adjudication stage has its own guidelines to be followed.
There are a total of 13 guidelines for this. Your application will be checked against these to ascertain your eligibility.
The guidelines are:
1. Guideline A: Allegiance to the United States
You must be of unquestioned allegiance to the United States. This primarily determines how willing you would be to cause harm to the country.
Involvement, associations or sympathy with activities touching on espionage, sabotage, treason, terrorism etc will deny you clearance.
2. Guideline B: Foreign influence
This covers a broad range of concerns including having family members or relatives who are not citizens of the US. You also risk denial if you live with someone connected to foreign governments.
Having financial interests in foreign countries which could make you vulnerable to foreign influence is also a concern.
3. Guideline C: Foreign preference
Do you have a liking for another country other than the US?
This can be evident through usage of foreign passports, voting in foreign elections, serving in foreign military, residing in a foreign country to meet citizenship requirements etc.
4. Guideline D: Sexual behavior
This can point to many ways in which you may become subject to coercion, exploitation or duress. It also checks for sexual behavior of a criminal nature, addictions and behavior which reflects lack of discretion or judgment.
5. Guideline E: Personal conduct
Checks on your reliability, honesty, willingness to comply with rules and regulations, trustworthiness etc.
Red flags could include refusal to cooperate with security processes, omission or falsification of material facts, association with people involved in crime etc.
6. Guideline F: Financial considerations
If you don’t meet financial obligations, have been involved in employee theft, tax evasions and the like, you may not be cleared.
This means you are not financially stable and may engage in criminal activity.
At the same time, unexplained affluence is usually connected to financially profitable criminal activity.
7. Guideline G: Alcohol consumption
If you take too much alcohol then you often exercise questionable judgment, don’t control your impulses and easily disclose information.
In that case, you cannot be entrusted with confidential information.
8. Guideline H: Drug involvement
Use of drugs (mood and behavior altering substances) can easily impair social or occupational functioning.
This can lead to inappropriate disclosure of confidential information. Evidence includes drug possession, cultivation, distribution etc.
9. Guideline I: Emotional, mental and personality disorders
Testing by an approved psychologist or psychiatrist will show signs of deficit in your psychological, social and occupation functioning.
Patterns of proof of high-risk, irresponsible, aggressive, anti-social or emotionally unstable behavior will work against your application. These are taken to indicate a defect in judgment, reliability or stability.
10. Guideline J: Criminal conduct
Have you committed a single serious crime or multiple lesser offenses? Are there recent allegations of criminal conduct against you? Such will lead to a conclusion that you cannot be relied upon or trusted.
11. Guideline K: Security violations
Do you comply with security regulations? Are you on record having violated such regulations deliberately or due to negligence?
These points to potential lack of trustworthiness, willingness and ability to safeguard classified information.
12. Guideline L: Outside activities
These include volunteer or employment with foreign countries or nationals or association with people of foreign citizenship involved in matters like defense, foreign affairs or protected technology.
Such may be an influence on you, thus posing a threat to the confidential information which may be in your possession.
13. Guideline M: Misuse of Information Technology Systems
This is all about hacking activities which include illegal or unauthorized access to IT systems and removal of hardware, software or media of this nature.
It also covers illegal or unauthorized modification, destruction or denial of access to information residing in an IT system.
STATUSES IN THE APPLICATION PROCESS
In the course of your application review, different statuses may be assigned to your file. These indicate where your application stands in the process of approval or denial.
These are mostly used internally to determine what action is currently being taken on the application. The statuses include the below.
This label shows that the investigation to your application has not yet started. You are among those waiting in line for an available investigator to take up your file.
Alternatively, you may have been assigned an investigator but he is yet to start working on your application.
Often, this is simply due to the backlog since the applications received before yours have to be dealt with first.
You will therefore have to exercise some patience before it’s time to handle yours.
This is a more favorable state for your application to be in compared to the “action pending” state. This label on your file indicates that the investigations to your application are complete.
With that completion, what remains is a review which happens in the adjudication stage.
The information provided by the investigations will be considered against the guidelines above.
This is what will inform the eligibility of your security clearance. It is likely that there are some applications to be handled before yours but the backlog here might not be as big as that in the investigations stage.
No Determination Made
In the event that the adjudicator requires more information before giving a determination on your application, this is the label which will be on your file.
More information may be sought from the investigator or it may simply be a case of a suitable determination being awaited.
Position of Trust
This label indicates that you have been granted access to classified information. The grant is usually at the level requested. This could be Confidential, Secret or Top Secret.
The full process of investigation and adjudication have shown that you are capable of being trusted with sensitive information.
THE INTERIM SECURITY CLEARANCE
It might interest you to know that there is also an option of obtaining an interim security clearance.
This option exists for those situations in which you need to start working in a short time and cannot wait the usual duration of the process.
This comes in the backdrop of the fact that clearance approval normally takes a lot of time.
There are also many pending applications and newer applicants may end up waiting for some time.
Since clearance is necessary before you start working, your new employer may require that you start working soon. For this reason, you will need an interim security clearance.
This may or may not be granted. There is no guarantee.
If granted, it will be during the early days of the investigation stage. The clearance will last until the adjudication of your application is done.
If clearance is granted to your application, then the interim becomes nullified as you get the confirmed security clearance. If security clearance is denied, then you lose the interim clearance.
Interim clearances are provided for the level requested in your application. If you applied for Secret security clearance, then it will granted for that level of sensitivity.
There are some limitations to the interim clearance too.
If you have an interim clearance for the Confidential and Secret levels, then you cannot access Restricted Data, NATO Information, and COMSEC information.
An interim clearance for the Top Secret level will give you access to these types of material, but only at the Confidential and Secret levels.
If you finally get the clearance, feel free to celebrate. Congratulations.
The government deems you trustworthy enough to handle sensitive information.
Keep in mind though that your clearance is subject to re-investigations.
This may come from your own application so as to keep the clearance current. It can also be as a result of implementing policies.
Such policies seek to ensure that those with clearance remain eligible to hold them.
The Confidential clearance is re-investigated after every 15 years. The Secret clearance is re-investigated after 10 years while re-investigating the Top Secret clearance is done after 5 years.
Obtaining a security clearance is not difficult, but may take time. The clearance however is often a gateway to a well-paying job.
Nonetheless, you should remember that honesty in the process is key. Do not lie about anything asked about.
In case you find it challenging and need help clarifying on anything, especially at the SF-86 form stage, it is advisable to consult an attorney.
He can also advise on any information you feel you wouldn’t want to reveal. This will help you explain things in case it comes up later as an omission.
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