Getting a security clearance is a very important part of many federal service jobs and military occupational specialties. It doesn’t matter if you are a member of the United States Army, Air Force, Navy, Coast Guard, or Marine Corps; if you need a security clearance you will be required to undergo a background check and screening process.
That process is a lengthy one; you will be required to provide information about old home addresses you may have forgotten, ex-spouses or former colleagues, vehicle ownership, home loans and other debts, medical bills, and other highly detailed data.
There are many misconceptions about this process; many security clearance blogs, federal job blogs, and other publications make statements that may or may not be 100% true. And there are some realities that some must assume are not true-realities that are learned the hard way in certain cases.
One security clearance blog has a post that includes the following as related to the question of whether there is an “automatic disqualifier” for security clearances; “Outside of citizenship, there is only one thing that is an automatic disqualifier for obtaining a federal security clearance – that is current, ongoing use of an illegal drug.”
That article also references something called the Bond Amendment of 2008 which includes four vital areas that can interfere with a security clearance screening. Those include criminal convictions that lead to a prison sentence of a year or longer, receiving a dishonorable discharge, “criminal incompetence,” and drug addiction.
The blog refers to “automatic disqualifiers” for security clearance applications, but in reality the reason many people may find themselves in trouble or needing to provide further information for the security clearance screening has nothing to do with what that particular blog identifies as an “automatic disqualifier.” It can be as simple as a problem with personal finances which appears to be a recurring issue, personal conduct, etc.
Three Levels Of Security Clearance
There are three levels of clearance;
- Top Secret
At any level, the security clearance granted allows the military member to access things classified at the level the worker holds or below. Top Secret is the highest clearance granted and the background check and screening process for Top Secret may be more intensive even if the same information is gathered – the scrutiny on that data may be higher than at the Confidential level.
That is not to imply that requirements are more lax, but rather that the areas that may not get as much scrutiny at the Confidential level may require supporting documentation and further development for those seeking the highest security clearance of the three.
Misconceptions and assumptions about the security clearance screening process can be problematic at best and lead to a rejection of the security clearance application at worst. What are the top disqualifiers for a security clearance and why are they identified as such? Whether you are seeking the lowest clearance (Confidential) or the highest (Top Secret Security Clearance), the following applies to all.
Different Security Clearance Approvals
Those who apply for a security clearance, especially a Top Secret clearance, are required to renew their clearances from time to time-the specific length of time may vary depending on the government agency, the level of clearance, and other circumstances.
Those who re-apply for a clearance may or may not be required (again depending on the nature of the work and the hiring agency’s policy) to submit to the same full background check again, but with every renewal of a security clearance, there is always the potential to be denied based on personal behavior and other issues since the last background check was performed.
Frequency of Security Level Clearance Background Checks/Clearance Approval
In general you may find that for Secret and Top Secret security clearances, a new screening may be required once every five years, though these policies may vary depending on the nature of the employment, the hiring agency’s policies, and federal requirements which are subject to change.
Things That Can Slow Down The Approval Or Denial Of A Security Clearance
Regardless of whether the background check/screenings are done initially or as a follow-up, certain things can delay the processing of a security clearance screening. They include incomplete or badly completed application forms, “poorly collected fingerprints,” and security clearance checks that involve a great deal of follow-up over “extensive overseas activities.”
Areas that need further development including concerns over legal issues, financial problems that are difficult to fully investigate, and in some cases criminal records research may also contribute to a slower process.
Areas Of Concern For Security Clearances
- 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
That’s according to the Department of Defense, which adds that in cases where an individual’s background reveals patterns of unreliable or untrustworthy behavior, “questions arise whether the person can be relied on and trusted to exercise the responsibility necessary for working in a secure environment where protecting classified information is paramount.”
One-Time Incidents Versus Life Habits
When it is time for a security clearance screening, the person or persons doing the background check are charged with determining if such patterns are life-long habits, the result of circumstances, or other issues.
And the nature of these potentially problematic areas are also reviewed: credit issues, debt problems, and related issues may be the result of things beyond the debtor’s control such as hospital bills or related obligations. One-time credit mistakes or failures require an examination of their causes.
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.
The presence of debt in and of itself is not the problem; any patterns or life habits that involve financial irresponsibility, carelessness, or the ability to place oneself in a position to be compromised? That’s a different story when it comes to security clearance disqualifiers.
The Most Common Reason For Being Denied A Security Clearance
In spite of published articles stating that substance use is the “instant disqualifier” for a security clearance, drugs and alcohol are NOT the most common reasons clearances are actually denied. The real culprit behind a large number of unsuccessful applications for a security clearance?
Financial considerations are among the highest causes of having a security clearance application denied. In 2017, the Defense Office of Hearing and Appeals Board heard 2,054 appeals from those who were denied a security clearance following the background check; of that number, more than 1400 were denied because of financial problems. Compare that to only roughly 400 appeals for denial of clearance based on personal conduct.
What kinds of problems led to these denials? In general they can and often do include:
- Poor credit choices over a prolonged period of time;
- Theft, embezzlement, tax evasion, and other financial violations;
- Recognizable patterns of unpaid debt
- Recognizable patterns of paying consistently late
- Recent acquisitions of cash or assets with no supporting documentation;
- Financial trouble related to gambling or drugs.
Appealing A Denial Of A Top Secret Security Clearance
According to the official site of the U.S. Department of State, those denied a security clearance or have had their existing clearance revoked will be notified of both the reasons why and the availability of an appeal to the decision to deny or revoke the clearance.
“You will be given the opportunity to address derogatory information that is provided as the basis for denial or revocation”, the U.S Department of State official site says, but much may depend on the procedures established by the hiring entity.
In other words, there is no one-size-fits-all process, it will be necessary to discuss the situation with the persons responsible for initiating and/or administering both the investigation and the appeals process. For help with any background check issue, it will be necessary to work with the hiring agency.
Getting A Top Secret Security Clearance Reinstated After It Has Been Revoked
For some, it may be possible to have a revoked clearance reinstated. The investigation that led to the revoked clearance must not out be of date. A revoked clearance “can be revalidated by the agency that originally granted the clearance, or it can be accepted and reciprocally granted by a different agency” according to the U.S. Department of State, but with the following caveats:
- No break in service lasting two years or more;
- the requested security clearance level is the same or lower;
- No significant changes in an individual’s situation since the last investigation.
Such reinstatements would be handled on a case-by-case basis and reinstatement of a revoked clearance is not guaranteed. The policies of the hiring agency, changes in federal law, and other variables will also affect whether or not a security clearance reinstatement is possible.
Joe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News