U.S. Government Security Clearances

Being eligible to hold a security clearance is often important when trying to secure a position in the intelligence or national security industry. While not all positions require a security clearance, most industry employers require applicants to be eligible to obtain one. It is important to understand the security clearance process before pursuing professional responsibilities in this field.

  • Security clearances can be issued by several federal agencies, such as the Department of Defense (DoD) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
  • To acquire a security clearance, individuals MUST be sponsored by an employer AND be in a position for which a security clearance is required.
  • Individuals who are naturalized U.S. citizens may acquire a security clearance in the same way that a natural-born U.S. citizen might.
  • Although non-U.S. citizens are prohibited from obtaining a security clearance, they may be granted Limited Access Authorization (LAA) in circumstances where they possess critical skills or qualifications.

Only federal agencies can grant a security clearance. You should never trust a company who offers “pre-approval” for the security clearance process. 

The 3 Types of Security Clearances

Confidential Security Clearance

A confidential clearance provides access to information that could cause some measurable damage to national security if disclosed without authorization. A confidential clearance requires a new background investigation every 15 years.

Secret Security Clearance

A secret clearance provides access to information that could cause a reasonable amount of damage to national security if disclosed without authorization. This level of security clearance requires a new background investigation every 10 years.

Top Secret Security Clearance

A top secret clearance provides access to information that could cause catastrophic damage to national security if disclosed without authorization. This level of security clearance requires a new background investigation every five years. 

Additionally, there is an access program that can be added on to top secret clearance, called Sensitive Compartmented Information SCI. 

For more information on security clearances, please read “Background Checks and Security Clearances” by GoGovernment.org or “Security Clearance FAQs” by ClearanceJobs.com.


How to Gain a Security Clearance

To obtain a security clearance, you must:

  1. Determine which level of clearance is required for the job or position you are applying for.
  2. Complete the appropriate security clearance application form, such as the Standard Form 86 (SF-86) for a top secret clearance or the SF-85 for a secret clearance.
  3. Undergo a background investigation, which may include checking criminal and credit histories, fingerprinting, and interviews with friends, family, and colleagues.
  4. Pass a security clearance interview, during which a security officer will ask you questions about your background and any possible security concerns.
  5. Clear a security clearance adjudication process, during which a security clearance official will review your application and investigative materials, and make a determination about your eligibility for a clearance.

It's important to note that the process can take several months to complete and the requirements and time frame can vary depending on the level and type of clearance you are applying for.


Frequently Asked Questions About Security Clearances

A security clearance is a determination by the United States government that a person or company is eligible for access to classified information. The term “eligible for access” means the same thing as security clearance; it is used in government record systems and by government personnel security specialists. There are two types of clearances: Personnel Security Clearances (PCLs) and Facility Security Clearances (FCLs).

Security clearances can be issued by many United States Government agencies, including the Department of Defense (DoD), the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Energy (DoE), the Department of Justice, and the Central Intelligence Agency. DoD, which issues more than 80% of all clearances, and most other agencies have three levels of security clearances:

  • Confidential Security Clearance
  • Secret Security Clearance
  • Top Secret Security Clearance

DoE primarily issues “L,” and “Q” Access Authorizations, which are roughly equivalent to Secret and Top Secret clearances, respectively.

No. You must be sponsored by a cleared contractor or government agency. 

To be sponsored, you must be employed (or hired as a consultant) in a position that requires a clearance. As an exception, a candidate for employment may be sponsored for a clearance if the employer has made an offer of employment and the candidate has accepted the offer. 

Both the offer and acceptance must be in writing. The offer of employment from a cleared contractor must indicate that employment will begin within 30 days of receiving the clearance.

The application form, Standard Form 86—SF86 (Questionnaire for National Security Positions), requires personal identifying data, as well as information regarding citizenship, residence, education, and employment history; family and associates; and foreign connections/travel. Additionally, it asks for information about criminal records, illegal drug involvement, financial delinquencies, certain types of mental health treatment, alcohol-related incidents and counseling, military service, prior clearances and investigations, civil court actions, misuse of computer systems, and subversive activities. The number of years of information required on the form varies from question to question—many require 7 years, some require 10 years, and others are not limited to any period of time. A PDF version of the SF86 form is available at the OPM website; however, most applicants will use the web-based version called e-QIP (electronic Questionnaires for Investigations Processing).

The Department of Defense Consolidated Adjudications Facility (DoD CAF) at Fort Meade, MD issues Personnel Clearances (PCL) for most DoD civilians, military personnel, and contractor personnel. Other DoD agencies that issue clearances are DIA, NGA, and NSA. 

Other Executive Branch departments that issue PCLs include the departments of Energy, State, Homeland Security, Transportation, Agriculture, Labor, Commerce, Treasury, Justice, Interior, Housing and Urban Development, Veterans Affairs, Health and Human Services, and Veterans Affairs. Many component agencies of these departments, as well as independent agencies (i.e. CIA, OPM, EPA, GAO, FCC, USITC, etc.), issue clearances. 

Collateral clearance determinations are based on completed personnel security investigations (PSI) using the “Adjudicative Guidelines for Determining Eligibility for Access to Classified Information.”
During a security clearance interview, the investigator will cover every item on the clearance application and have the applicant confirm the accuracy and completeness of the information. The applicant will be asked about a few matters that are not on the application, such as the handling of protected information, susceptibility to blackmail, sexual misconduct and any potential security/suitability issues. 

The end-to-end processing time for a security clearance is primarily dependent on the type of clearance required, the federal agency involved, and the absence or presence of significant unfavorable information. In general, the process takes anywhere between 30-180 days.

Generally, as long as cleared individuals remain employed by a cleared contractor or government agency and are reasonably expected to require access to classified information, their personnel security clearance will remain in effect. However, they must comply with Periodic Reinvestigation requirements.

Currently reinvestigations are required at five-year intervals for Top Secret clearances, 10-year intervals for Secret clearances, and 15-year intervals for Confidential clearances.

The National security adjudicative guidelines are the criteria used to evaluate all individuals who require a national security clearance.

All Executive Branch agencies use these guidelines when rendering a national security eligibility determination. The national security eligibility determinations take into account a person’s:

  • Stability
  • Trustworthiness
  • Reliability
  • Discretion
  • Character
  • Honesty
  • Judgment
  • Unquestionable loyalty to the U.S.

In making a national security eligibility determination, the federal government does not discriminate on the basis of:

  • Race
  • Color
  • Religion
  • Sex
  • National origin
  • Disability
  • Sexual orientation

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