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What Does Having a Security Clearance Mean?

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If you’ve ever wondered who gets to see the file folder stamped -- usually in red -- “Top Secret” or “Confidential” in your favorite spy movies, they’re people with security clearance. While movie portrayals are prone to dramatization, both “confidential” and “top secret” are actual clearance categories, allowing their bearers access to information that, if placed into untrustworthy hands, could jeopardize national security.

No Secrets

Think of security clearance as a credit check on steroids -- only your life will be examined in more detail than a credit check, and the steroid dose depends on what type of clearance you need. As an example, you’re offered a position with a government agency, such as the Department of Defense, in which you’ll be filing sensitive documents, thus requiring the highest level of clearance: Top Secret. That agency initiates the security clearance process for you -- beginning with a questionnaire and then a series of intensive investigations into your life -- to determine if you are likely to be a risk to U.S. national security if you have access to that information. Investigators will interview you and others in your life as part of this process.

Confidential is the lowest level of clearance. Secret clearance is one level up, and Top Secret is the highest. You are subject to being re-investigated after five years to renew your clearance, beginning from your last investigation.

Who Needs Clearance

Many government workers need to obtain security clearances for their jobs; the level of clearance depends on the position, agency or assignment. Private companies and individuals who work on government contracts also often need to seek security clearance, as do some armed forces members, particularly if they work in military intelligence. Law enforcement officers may also need security clearance; even if they don’t need it for their own jobs, occasionally state and local officers work on a case with federal officials such as the FBI. In those instances they may need to obtain security clearance so federal authorities can share information with them.

No Stone Unturned

You’ll be given an application to fill out, and once you turn it in, expect everything in your personal and professional life to be examined at a level necessary for the level of clearance you need. This is called the adjudication process. Areas the investigators will examine include your loyalty to the U.S.; whether you have conflicting loyalties with another country -- for example, if you have relatives living overseas; and anything that indicates loyalty to another country, such as possessing a foreign passport. They’ll also investigate highly personal aspects such as exercising poor judgment in your sexual behaviors, how forthcoming and honest you are during your clearance interview, whether you’ve exhibited illegal or irresponsible behaviors related to alcohol consumption, and using illegal or abusing prescription drugs. The investigators will also look at your mental competency and criminal history, although having mental treatment or being arrested may not necessarily disqualify you. Finally, your outside activities, such as jobs you’ve held or organization memberships, and evidence of any technology abuses, such as computer system hacking, are also examined.

Access Rarely Denied

Those skeletons in your closet aren’t necessarily the death knell to gaining your security clearance; in fact, most individuals seeking clearance are granted it. Investigators do take into account that humans are fallible and have discretion to take mitigating circumstances into consideration. The primary concern is that you are trustworthy and reliable. Investigators use a “whole-person” process to weigh negative information and events against positive ones -- a one-time youthful indiscretion is not likely to be as much concern as not filing your federal income tax returns for the last five years. If investigators find red flags, it may delay the final decision while they seek more information or ask you for an explanation. It’s important that you are completely honest on your initial application and not try to hide anything.