Military service often requires a security clearance. You don’t have to be eligible for a job handling the world’s most sensitive data in order to need a security clearance. You could simply be working in a facility that handles sensitive information and need a clearance to operate certain equipment. Or, as strange as it may sound, you may need clearance to be in the same room with such equipment even if you do not use it yourself.
In order to obtain a security clearance, you must submit to a background check and be investigated. There are those who pass the background check and investigation with no trouble at all. There are others who are outright rejected as a result of the process.
What does it mean to be denied a security clearance and what are the most typical grounds for being refused one?
There are three levels of clearance. From lowest to highest, they are:
- Top Secret
At any level, the security clearance granted allows the military member access to things classified at the level the worker holds or below.
Those who have Top Secret clearances may be granted access to any classified data. Work centers, equipment, or other things are listed at any classification level from Top Secret or below. But this does not automatically give the worker the ability to freely access or use classified information if they do not have a mission related reason to do so.
Applying for a Security Clearance
When a security clearance is required to work a military job, the service member’s supervisor will direct them to complete the appropriate paperwork and submit to the background investigation.
The paperwork is lengthy and the investigation may take 120 days to complete. In some cases, an interim security clearance may be granted. This is considered an exception in many cases, not the rule, but this will depend on mission requirements.
The Difference between Being Denied A Security Clearance and Having An Application Rejected
In some cases, a security clearance investigation may be stopped and the application returned. This is due to problems with the application itself, rather than the applicant’s background. This means that procedural rules were not followed or not followed properly and the application must be re-accomplished.
This is not the same as being denied a security clearance.
Top Administrative Reasons for a Security Clearance Application Rejection (Not A Denial of Clearance)
A security clearance package may be sent back for correction and proper completion for a variety of reasons. Remember, these are not things that cause the investigation process to result in a denial of security clearances per se, but rather the things that halt the investigation process altogether. It may require the applicant to provide the proper information as requested.
Applicants may be asked to re-accomplish paperwork for the following reasons:
- Missing employment information
- Missing social security number of spouse or adult co-habitant
- Missing information on relatives
- Missing Selective Service registration details
- Missing or incomplete information concerning debts
- Missing or incomplete information on a bankruptcy
- Missing education reference information
- Missing or incomplete employment references
- Incomplete explanation of employment history
- Missing personal references
- Missing or incomplete explanation of drug use
There are other reasons an application may be returned-some technical, some not. They include:
- Fingerprints not submitted on time
- Certification and/or release forms illegible
- Certification or release forms missing from package
- Certification/Release forms with improper date formatting
- Discrepancies in birth information (dates, locations, etc.)
- Other discrepancies, improperly formatted forms, illegible submissions, etc.
When A Security Clearance Is Actually Denied
In some cases, the clearance is denied as opposed to having the application package returned for corrections. There are a variety of reasons why this can occur.
In general, the reasons a clearance is denied may be related to the following areas. Note that these areas are general and do not contain specific behavior descriptions (we will view some of those below). These topic areas are:
- Allegiance to the U.S. 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 IT Systems
Note that most of these descriptors are fairly neutral. “Personal conduct” and “sexual behavior” could mean anything to an outsider without further explanation. What do these topic areas imply?
Understanding these areas means knowing what the causes for concern would be to the investigator. For example, “sexual behavior” would be examined in light of whether certain behavior is deemed criminal, a result of mental health issues, or whether the behavior makes the applicant vulnerable to duress, exploitation, etc. Judgment issues are also examined in this and personal conduct areas.
“Use of IT Systems” would be investigated in a similar manner. Does the conduct reflect a lack of judgment? Was it illegal? Was it done in a manner that exposes an agency or individuals to compromise, etc. Did poor judgment result in unauthorized use of government IT systems or related problems?
Feedback from co-workers, colleagues, family, and friends will also be critical in these investigations. What picture emerges when your references discuss you and your activities?
The investigators are looking for any situation that could reflect poor decision making skills, a lack of judgment, the ability to be compromised, and the likelihood that such behavior was or was not a one-time mistake or issue.
The Most Common Reasons for Being Denied Security Clearances
Believe it or not, financial considerations are among the highest causes of having a security clearance application denied. Published reports note that in 2017, the Defense Office of Hearing and Appeals (DOHA) Board heard 2,054 clearance denial appeals. Of that number, a little over 250 of those appeals were for clearance denials for “foreign influence.”
Compare that number with the whopping 1400 plus security clearance denials on grounds of financial issues. The next highest number in that group was just over 400 appeals for denial of clearance based on “personal conduct.”
The areas of “criminal conduct” and substance abuse security clearance rejections were far lower in incidence according to the 2017 stats on those appeals.
Clearly, financial issues are a major source of trouble in the security clearance process. What kinds of financial trouble might be a red flag in this process?
- A history of poor credit choices
- Deceptive or illegal financial activities including theft, embezzlement, tax evasion, and other financial “breach of trust” problems
- A history of unpaid or late-paid debt
- Being unable to source or explain recent acquisitions of cash or assets
- Financial problems from gambling
- Financial problems stemming from substance abuse
The presence of these problems alone does not equal an automatic rejection of the security clearance. The investigators will be charged with determining if these problems are habitual, a one-time, or circumstantial problem, etc.
Credit or debt problems that rise from medical bills or hospital stays may be viewed quite differently than a gambling problem or a refusal to pay debt. A one-time credit or debt problem is also likewise reviewed for their causes rather than being viewed as an automatic red flag no matter what the cause.
One area that can be troublesome on a background check is financial behavior that indicates the applicant is frequently over-extended on credit, personal debt, etc. Having too much debt and not enough income creates a potential circumstance where those holding security clearances can be compromised. In the minds of the investigators, it will be necessary to determine if an applicant is a habitual over-spender or debt accumulator.
The presence of debt in and of itself is not the problem. The pattern of possible financial irresponsibility, carelessness, or the ability to place oneself in a position to be compromised is the real issue.
What You Should Know About Security Clearance Investigations
Not all security clearance investigations are identical. Automated tools may be used for some of the check, but an investigator may also do extensive work developing certain applications or following up on information revealed in the process.
It’s a bad idea to approach the process ill-prepared. Know that a security clearance will likely require review of all your residences, jobs, relationships, education, and other factors over a ten year period of time.
That is a span that can be difficult to address strictly from memory. If you are up for a clearance you may need to do some research on the exact names, dates, addresses, and other information in these areas for the last decade.
The process takes enough time when all the information is complete and properly formatted. If you don’t have accurate dates, addresses, etc. in your paperwork you may wind up being asked to take a second pass at the application which will further delay your progress toward getting a decision.
You can get ready for these investigations in advance by gathering relevant paperwork that may help including old leases, credit card bills, birth certificates and Social Security cards, etc. If you have electronic or paper pay stubs from past employers, student loans, and vehicle title information, you will be at a big advantage going into the application.
Relying on memory alone is a bad idea. While you should get some preliminary information from a supervisor or personnel office on how to prepare, don’t forget that you will be asked some details that aren’t found in a receipt or tax form. The addresses of your personal, educational, and professional references are one such area you will need to prepare for in advance for best results.
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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