What does it take to get a top secret security clearance or TSI? There are three basic classifications for security clearances, and all who apply for them must undergo a background investigation before they can be awarded.
The three basic security clearance levels are:
- Confidential/Public Trust (the lowest level)
- Secret (mid-level)
- Top Secret (highest basic security clearance level)
What does it take to earn the highest security clearance? To begin, it helps to understand what it means to obtain and hold a clearance. The most basic rules for security clearances, no matter what agency you want to work for, include the following:
- You must apply for, and be hired for or assigned to a position that requires a clearance in order to apply for the clearance itself. Your new supervisor or HR department will initiate the process or tell you where to go to do so.
- You will apply for job-specific clearances rather than simply applying without having a need to do so. In other words, you can’t apply for ANY clearance without a job requirement–even if you anticipate getting hired, you must wait until that process is official.
- Any existing clearance may or may not travel to a new agency. This will depend greatly on circumstances and avoiding a new background check is not guaranteed.
- Clearance levels are assigned on an as-needed basis. This means you don’t apply for a clearance level you don’t require to do your work. If your work involves a need for a Secret-level clearance rather than a Top Secret classification, you cannot apply for Top Secret as a “just in case”. You will be required to apply for the highest level of clearance you actually need to perform the work.
- The investigative process requires extensive information from the applicant regardless of the level you need. A Confidential-level investigation may ask the same questions as the Top Secret level.
What It Takes To Get A Top Secret Security Clearance
The first step after you have interviewed for a job and have been hired? Once you start your security clearance journey, it takes being as honest as possible during the entire process on both the forms and with the personal interview (see below). The more transparent the applicant is, the easier the process will be overall.
That does NOT mean it won’t be as time consuming, but investigations have some of their most common delays when clarifying information given by the applicant. If you are misleading, inaccurate, or deliberately misrepresent certain areas of your life, the process can take longer than usual. But that process WILL move forward.
The process of obtaining a Top Secret clearance involves an extensive background investigation. Confidential and Secret investigations are thorough, but the Top Secret version is the most intensive.
No, most applicants won’t notice any difference at all–the process is not as transparent to the applicant as some might think and the overall procedures are mostly identical for all investigations. Expect a LOT of questions and expect those questions to cover a 10-year period of your life at a minimum.
Applicants for clearances are required to fill out Standard Form 86, Questionnaire For National Security Positions. You will be asked questions on the form and in the personal interview on the following subject matter areas:
- Allegiance to the United States
- Foreign Influence
- Foreign Preference
- Sexual Behavior
- Personal Conduct
- Financial Considerations
- Alcohol Consumption
- Drug Involvement
- Psychological Conditions
- Criminal Conduct
- Handling Protected Information
- Outside Activities
- Use of Information Technology Systems
How you answer this form determines a great deal about how your investigation process will go; applicants are judged on how truthful they are on this form. And how does the investigator know you’ve been truthful or not?
It’s Called An Investigation For A Reason
Once you have given your answers on the form your answers are checked. This is done by referencing all available records including law enforcement at the local, state, and federal level, by checking your birth records and other private data you give on the form. Your college transcripts and other documents are sought, and people you have known will be contacted and interviewed.
The contact information for your friends, family, roommates, partners, spouses and ex-spouses is all gathered from the applicant to the best of their memory. The answers you provide on SF-86 will be cross-referenced with the records and interviews of the people you’ve known.
And the applicant herself is interviewed in addition to filling out the lengthy SF-86. This is another way of gathering information for the process and helps to round out the data already collected on paper.
Penalties For False Statements
Those who fill out SF-86 are advised of the penalties for making false or inaccurate statements in the form or interview process. SF-86 warns applicants:
“The U.S. Criminal Code (title 18, section 1001) provides that knowingly falsifying or concealing a material fact is a felony which may result in fines and/or up to five (5)years imprisonment”. Add to that the fact that the federal agency which hired you usually fire those who have “materially and deliberately falsified” information on SF-86 or other forms and you can see why honesty is the best policy.
Approval Authority For Security Clearances
The final decision made on an individual applicant for a national security position rests with the agency that has hired you and requested the investigation process. Those who have difficulty in the screening and investigation process will be given the opportunity to clarify, refute, or explain details in question prior to a final determination being made.
Types Of Jobs That May Require Security Clearances
The first type of employment job seekers often think of in reference to a Top Secret level clearance often include espionage, cyber security, military intelligence gathering, research and development, and other high-level work.
But there are plenty of other jobs within the federal government and elsewhere that may require the highest classification. These jobs usually require a classification because the workers routinely handle sensitive data or because the work center is in a controlled access location. These jobs may include, but are not limited to:
- Software Reliability & Maintainability Engineer
- Digital Engineering Analyst (TS or TS/SCI Clearance Required)
- Next Gen GEO Lead Space Engineer
- Operational Level of War Training Team Cyber/Information Warfare
- Senior Business Manager
- Quality Assurance Manager
- Systems Engineer
- Senior Executive Assistant
- Business Process Engineer
- Project Manager
- Principal Systems Analyst
- Principal Systems Engineer
- Chief Engineer
Getting a security clearance may sound intimidating; the process may feel intrusive and you may not enjoy the lengthy form-filling and question answering. But the results are definitely worth the effort. Obtaining a job and a clearance means open doors in the future due to your ability to obtain and maintain your Top Secret clearance.
Joe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News
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