Security Clearance: Myth & Fact

Audio file

In this episode, our host, Program Officer Shabnam Ahmed, will connect with NSEP and will unpack some frequently asked questions about Security Clearances.

Audio Transcription

Shabnam:   Welcome to the Boren Around the World podcast, a podcast by the National Security Education Program for Boren awardees, language lovers and federal service enthusiasts. For those of you listening who are Boren awardees that have returned from your adventure abroad, and are now in the process of applying for federal jobs, congratulations! You may remember listening to several security clearance presentations during your time at convocation and seminar. Ny name is Shabnam and I'm here again with my colleague Aleia to discuss the basics of security clearances, the process, and tips for success. Thank you for joining us Aleia

Aleia:          Of course Shabnam, thank you for having me. I think a lot of people are typically really anxious about security clearances which is why we also have a webinar on the topic on the NSEPnet website for those that need a visual guide to navigating the process. Because security clearances are required for so many jobs in federal government, and most federal contractors, it's something that an awardee will likely have to obtain at some point in their career so this is a really relevant topic.

Shabnam:   I remember during convocation, especially as an awardee myself, listening to how long the security clearance process would take, and wondering or really thinking about my timeline and feeling like it would through off the time line I had expected for myself.

Aleia:          Yeah the security clearance process can be really lengthy, but again it depends on the type of clearance that your position requires. So there are five different levels of security clearances and the first is public trust, which is just pretty much a standard background check, is not technically even a security clearance.

Shabnam:   That's the one I have

Aleia:          Yes and you work with a DOD contractor, so sometimes depending on the position that's all that's needed. One step beyond that is the confidential clearance which is required for access to information that could cause damage to National Security if disclosed. Then it's secret, top secret, and then TSSCI. The difference between them is really the level of access you have to certain information. So secret is required for access to information that could cause serious damage to National Security, top secret for grave damage if disclosed, and TSSCI is top secret clearance with access to sensitive compartmented information, and that's type is required for most intelligence jobs. The intelligence Community might also impose some other requirements such as a polygraph test to obtain the TSSCI. You also have public trust and confidential clearances, those are the quickest to process, usually around 3 to 4 weeks, whereas the with the secret clearances it could take up to six months, and top-secret you might be looking at a year or longer. The length of processing will really depend on your individual background, your personal circumstances, so it can be longer or shorter than that time frame that I mentioned. The types of clearances required, it's really dependent on what position you're applying for, and their specific requirements.

Shabnam:   Okay so suppose I apply for a position with the Department of State that requires a secret clearance. I apply and then I get the job, what would my clearance process look like after that point?

Aleia:          Sure. So you said you got the job, so what actually happen is that you received a conditional offer of employment. or a COE, which basically means that the hiring agency, in this case the Department of State is going to sponsor your security clearance, and since your job offer is conditional upon you obtaining that clearance, you'll begin this process immediately after receiving your conditional offer. There are four things you need to do after you receive your COE, the first is you need to submit all of your paperwork, so forms such as the SF86, your fingerprinting, or other information regarding overseas travel, the second would be any other pre-employment screening, which can be a polygraph if required, drug testing and so on. Third after submitting all of that necessary paperwork and pre-employment screening investigator will meet with you one-on-one to carefully go through all of these forms and interview the contacts you listed within your documentation. Finally when those three things are completed a clearance adjudicator will weigh the information gathered against the federal government's 13 adjudicative guidelines, and make that final suitability determination. So in some cases you may be able to begin work just with an interim clearance, meaning your full clearance is still pending full adjudication, and this is going to depend on the nature of the work that you're doing.

Shabnam:   So the first step after my COE, after my conditional offer of employment, is submitting an SF 86?

Aleia:          Yes so an SF 86 is Standard Form 86, that's a really important form, it's very comprehensive, and you have to include everything from your residences, employment, education, past drug use, foreign contacts etc. on that form and so it's really important to document your residences, employment history, just your general whereabouts when you're traveling overseas. You should also make sure that you have contact information for U.S. citizens who can verify all of that information. Pay attention to time frames, since some questions might ask you to go back 7 years or 10 years or even since birth, but in general just be thorough, forthcoming and honest, and if you don't fill out the form correctly, you know it might cause delays in the process and deliberately withholding any information will lead to discontinuation of that process.

Shabnam:   So after we fill out the forms and do any other pre-employment screening and have our background check complete, an adjudicator will decide if we're suitable for the position?

Aleia:          That's correct. If you're deemed suitable, then you get the clearance and hence the job. However there is a difference between being denied a security clearance and being denied suitability. So if you've been flat out denied a security clearance, this means that you've been denied access to classified information, and it's really difficult to obtain a security clearance once you've been denied one in the past. On the other hand with a suitability denial, this means that you've been found unsuitable for the particular position to which you applied, and that's something that's really common, and it doesn't always require a reason, and it doesn't preclude you from obtaining a clearance in the future.

Shabnam:   Thanks Aleia. So is a suitability denial the same as having my clearance discontinued because I'm not needed or deemed suitable for the position?

Aleia:           So a clearance discontinuation may be linked to you know the hiring agencies budget, or their specific needs at that time, so it doesn't mean that you've been denied a clearance

Shabnam:   Okay thank you for clarifying that. I think they're generally a lot of perceptions we have about security clearances given that it can seem like such a mysterious process, I think it would be helpful to debunk some conceptions and misconceptions we all might be hearing.

Aleia:          Definitely. So one thing I hear a lot is ‘can't I just apply for security clearance on my own?’ that's not something that you can do. Only a federal agency or a contracting organization can sponsor your clearance, you can't begin the clearance process without that COE in hand.

Shabnam:   Some people who obtain a top secret clearance at the Department of Defense for example, think that you know their set and up their clearance will never expire, is this true?

Aleia:           So that's another myth, security clearances do expire, and if you have a break in service of more than two years, you'll need to undergo a new background investigation. Individuals holding security clearances are also subject to periodic reinvestigation, so that's at a minimum of every five years for top secret, 10 years for secret, and 15 years for confidential.

Shabnam:   Can clearances transfer to other agencies? For example suppose I get that secret clearance with the Department of State, could it transfer to DoD should I decide to switch agencies?

Aleia:           Some agencies do indeed accept security clearances granted by other departments or agencies, for that reciprocity to apply the position can't require a higher eligibility then the current clearance level. In addition the date of that individual's last investigation has to fall within the required time line, and the existing eligibility must not have been granted an interim or temporary basis, so you have to have a full clearance for reciprocity to apply.

Shabnam:   Okay. Can you be under investigation for more than one position at a time? Suppose I wanted apply for two positions one at DOD and one at State, and they both require a clearance can I be under the process for two different agencies or possess and at the same time?

leia:             There's no formal rule preventing you from being under investigation for more than one position. So agencies will typically only do one investigation at a time though, since conditional job offer stop always trying to firm job offers, the NSEP office does encourage you all to explore many different options.

Shabnam:   Okay, what would you say to someone who doesn't even pursue a position that requires a security clearance because they think they will be disqualified?

Aleia:          There are very few automatic disqualifiers. So under the Bond Amendment there are four criteria that result in clearance denial, and those are an individual convicted of a crime and sentenced to prison for more than a year, a person who was discharged from the military under dishonourable conditions, a person who is mentally incompetent, or a person who is addicted to a controlled substance. Automatic denials usually occur when one or more of these criteria is met.

Shabnam:  Thank you so much Aleia. We hope this clears up some questions about the process.

Aleia:          No problem Shabnam, like I said there is more info about security clearances on for those that may want more detailed guidance. and it's really not that intimidating of a process, but it can get very lengthy, which is why it's so important to stay organized and be proactive. Also, I'd like to emphasize that there are so many opportunities that don't require a security clearance, plenty of awardees do fulfill their service requirement in government without needing one, so don't feel limited by it.

Shabnam:   Thank you so much again Aleia. You’ve been listening to the Boren around the world podcast. If you haven't yet, go to Spotify to subscribe, rate and view this podcast. If you're interested in participating in the podcast, email with “Boren Podcast” in your subject line. Join me soon for another episode. Thank you for listening!