Security Clearance Military Secrets

The Basics of Getting a Security Clearance in the Military

Top secret confidential file
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You may need a security clearance to hold different jobs in the military and with civilian contractors. What do they investigate and how far back do they go to decide if you get one? What can keep you from getting a security clearance? For how long is a security clearance valid?

What Is a Security Clearance?

The military possesses information and technology which could be helpful to our enemies. Unauthorized release of this information can compromise national security.

Loose lips sink ships.

A security clearance investigation ensures that you are eligible for access to national security information. The investigation focuses on your character and conduct, emphasizing such factors as honesty, trustworthiness, reliability, financial responsibility, criminal activity, emotional stability, and other pertinent areas. All investigations consist of checks of national records and credit checks; some investigations also include interviews with individuals who know the candidate for the clearance as well as the candidate himself/herself.

Classified Information and Security Clearance Categories

In the military, all classified information is divided into one of three categories:

  • Confidential: Unauthorized disclosure could cause damage to the national security.
  • Secret:  Unauthorized disclosure could cause serious damage to the national security.
  • Top Secret: Unauthorized disclosure could cause exceptionally grave damage to the national security.

    In addition to the above, some classified information is so sensitive that even the extra protection measures applied to Top Secret information are not sufficient. This information is known as Sensitive Compartmented Information (SCI) or Special Access Programs (SAP), and one needs special SCI Access or SAP approval to be given access to this information.

    For Official Use Only is not a security classification. It is used to protect information covered under the Privacy Act, and other sensitive data.

    Who Requires a Security Clearance?

    You need a security clearance if your need access to classified information to perform your duties. If your job requires you to have access to Confidential Information, you would require a Confidential Security Clearance, for example.

    For military personnel, two things determine the level of security clearance required; your MOS/AFSC/Rating (Job), and your assignment.  Many military jobs require access to classified information, regardless of where you are assigned. In other cases, the job itself may not require a security clearance, but the particular location or unit that the person is assigned to would require giving access to classified information and material.

    The Department of Defense (DOD) operates its security program separate from other government agencies, with its own procedures and standards. A Top Secret Clearance with the Department of Energy, for example, would not necessarily transfer to DOD.

    In the United States military, only United States citizens can be granted a DOD security clearance.

    Need to Know Required

    Merely having a certain level of security clearance does not mean you are authorized to view classified information.

    To have access to classified information, you must possess the necessary two elements: A level of security clearance, at least equal to the classification of the information, and an appropriate "need to know" the information in order to perform their duties. Just because you have a Secret Clearance, you would have access to all Secret Information in the military. You would need to have a specific reason to know that information before you were granted access.

    Who Conducts Security Clearance Background Investigations?

    Security Clearance Background Investigations for the Department of Defense (DOD) are conducted by the Defense Security Service (DSS). This includes background investigations for military personnel, civilian personnel who work for DOD, and military contractors. The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) conducts Security Clearance Investigations for most other branches of the Federal Government.

    How are Security Clearances Granted?

    Once it is determined that a military member requires a security clearance because of assignment or job, you are instructed to complete a Security Clearance Background Investigation Questionnaire. It is done with an electronic form.

    You'll need to provide information for the previous five years for Confidential and Secret clearances and for the previous 10 years for Top Secret clearances. 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, you may be fined, and imprisoned for a period of five years. Under the UCMJ, the maximum punishment includes a reduction to the lowest enlisted grade, forfeiture of all pay and allowances, confinement for a period of five years, and a dishonorable discharge.

    The form contains a statement which you sign authorizing release of any information about you to security clearance investigators. That includes sealed records, juvenile records, expunged records, and medical records.

    Answering all of the questions on the SF86 accurately is evidence of your reliability and honesty. Your clearance could be denied if you conceal information. Once granted, your clearance could be revoked if they later discovered you had been dishonest in filling out the forms.

    If you realize after you submit the form that you made a mistake or omitted something important, tell your Security Officer, Recruiter, MEPS Security Interviewer, or the DSS Investigator when you are interviewed. If you do not do so, the error or omission could be held against you during the adjudicative process.

    Once you complete the questionnaire, it is sent to the Defense Security Service (DSS). They verify the information and perform the actual background investigation. The level of  the investigation depends upon the level of access to be granted.

    For Confidential and Secret Clearances, they will do a National Agency Check (NAC)  -- a search of records held by federal agencies including the FBI and OPM, a Local Agency Check (LAC) -- a review of criminal history records, and a financial check 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, checks of records held by employers, courts, and rental offices, and a subject interview of you by an investigator.

    NACs may be performed electronically from a central location. DSS uses both DSS Agents and private detective agencies in the local area.

    Field Interviews with References

    Investigators will do field interviews with the references you listed on the questionnaire and use them to develop more references to interview. They will be asked questions about your character and whether you should be given access to classified information or assigned to a sensitive position. The interviews are wide-ranging with questions about your activities, job history, education, family, finances, drugs, alcohol problems, and police encounters.

    Subject Interviews

    You will also have a wide-ranging interview that will cover most aspects of your life. During the subject interview, expect to be questioned about your family background, experiences, health, use of alcohol or drugs, financial affairs, foreign travel, and many other topics.

    The investigator is experienced in conducting these interviews. It is unlikely that anything you say will cause him or her shock or surprise. Be as candid as possible. The investigator will try to put you at ease if you become upset or uncomfortable. It is in your best interest to answer the investigator's questions in order for an adjudicator to reach a valid decision on your suitability to access classified information or be appointed to a sensitive position or position of trust.

    What Determines Approval or Disapproval?

    Each military service has their own adjudicator that receives the information from DSS and decides whether to grant the security clearance. They apply their specific guidelines to your case. They may request further investigation of problem areas. Adjudicators are not the final authority. All denials of clearances must be personally reviewed by a branch chief or higher authority.

    The adjudicator considers the following factors when evaluating an individual’s conduct:

    • The nature, extent and seriousness of the conduct
    • The circumstances surrounding the conduct, to include knowledgeable participation
    • The frequency and recency of the conduct
    • The individual’s age and maturity at the time of the conduct
    • The voluntariness of participation
    • The presence or absence of rehabilitation and other pertinent behavioral changes
    • The motivation for the conduct
    • The potential for pressure, coercion, exploitation, or duress; and
    • The likelihood of continuation of the conduct

    Any doubt as to whether access to classified information is clearly consistent with national security will be resolved in favor of the national security.

    Law requires denial of a clearance for these circumstances:

    1. Convicted in any court of the U.S. of a crime and sentenced to imprisonment for a term exceeding one year.
    2. Using a controlled substance (as defined in section 102 or the Controlled Substances Act.
    3. If you are mentally incompetent as determined by a mental health professional approved by the DoD
    4. If you have a dishonorable discharge from the military.
    5. Exceptions can be granted by the highest authorities.

    How Long Does the Process Take?

    In general, expect a Confidential or Secret clearance to take between one and three months. A Top Secret will probably take between four and eight months but can take more than a year. It takes longer if you've lived and worked in many locations, have foreign travel, have relatives in foreign countries, and you have issues that need further investigation.

    If you are a new military recruit, the computerized checks can start while you are in the Delayed Enlistment Program (DEP). But field interviews aren't started until you go to basic training. They are the most expensive part of the process, and some recruits change their mind while in the DEP and don't ship out to basic training.

    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. Sometimes, military commanders can authorize an "interim clearance" which allows access to classified information while waiting for the official clearance to be approved. This can sometimes be done if the initial computerized criminal check finds no problems.

    How Do I Check the Status of My Clearance Investigation?

    You aren't allowed to check directly with DSS. All status checks must be made by the Unit or Contractor Security Officer. They are allowed to call DSS.

    After I'm Granted a Clearance, Can it Later Be Revoked?

    Your clearance can be revoked, and there is an ongoing evaluation for all personnel holding security clearances. There are reporting procedures for supervisors to alert Facility Security Officers when there is an incident or suspicion about a person with a security clearance. Clearance may be suspended during an investigation.

    Incidents that are not immediately investigated may be noted and explored later when that individual undergoes a routinely scheduled Periodic Reinvestigation. Information relating to the following issues may be considered significant in relation to holding a clearance:

    • Allegiance to the U.S.
    • Foreign Influence
    • Foreign preference
    • Sexual Behavior
    • Personal Conduct
    • Financial Considerations
    • Alcohol Consumption
    • Drug Involvement
    • Emotional, Mental and Personality Disorders
    • Criminal Conduct
    • Security Violations
    • Outside Activities Misuse of Information Technology Systems

    Can I Appeal a Clearance Denial or Revocation?

    You have the right to appeal the adjudicative decision. You'll be provided the reason it was denied or revoked and steps for filing an appeal.

    How Long Are Security Clearances Valid?

    A Periodic Reinvestigation (PR) is required every five years for a Top Secret Clearance, 10 years for a Secret Clearance, or 15 years for a Confidential Clearance. But you may be subject to a random investigation at any time.

    When a security clearance is inactivated (ie, when someone gets out of the military, or quits from their government civilian job or contractor job), it can be reactivated within 24 months, as long as the last background investigation falls within the above time-frame.

    Having a security clearance can give you hiring preference with DOD contractors once you leave the military, as it saves them the expense of conducting one. Once your clearance expires, you will have to have present or pending duties to get it renewed.

    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. It is needed for those in the DSS, National Security Agency, when on loan to the CIA, and for some SCI and SAP access programs.

    Polygraph examination can be performed when there is a security investigation, but you have to give your permission for it to be done. It can also be done when they are investigating federal felonies including  the release of classified information or an act of terrorism.

    Regulations govern the polygraph examination and questions are reviewed with you before it is performed. They are prohibited from asking about religious or political belief  and subjects that are not related to the investigation.

    What About Companies That Advertise to Hire People With Clearances?

    You can apply for these jobs if you don't have a clearance, but they will give preference to those who already have a security clearance. 

    The government pays the cost of clearances for military personnel and civilian government employees. But the law requires that contractors pay most of the costs of obtaining clearances for their employees. That's why contractors often advertise for applicants who already hold a valid clearance. Additionally, it saves them time, as they don't have to wait for months for the new employee to obtain a clearance, and begin to do the job they were hired for.

    The average cost to process a Secret clearance can run from several hundred dollars to $3,000, depending upon individual factors. The average cost to process a Top Secret clearance is between $3,000 and about $15,000, depending upon individual factors.

    You cannot simply request a clearance for yourself and offer to pay for it. To obtain a clearance you have to have a job which requires one (either by being in the military, or a government civilian job, or a contractor job).