What is a Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmented Information (TS SCI) security clearance and how does it work? The key to understanding SCI is to understand how security clearances work overall.
What many don’t understand is that even with a security clearance, an individual contractor, employee, uniformed service member, or even a commander may not be granted access to TS/SCI or other classified information on the basis of having the appropriate level of clearance alone.
Just because you have a Top Secret security clearance does not mean you automatically get access to anything marked Top Secret. Those without a need to know are generally not granted access even at the levels they are cleared for. Understanding this helps understand how TS/SCI works.
There are three basic levels of security clearance: Confidential, Secret, and Top Secret. Some things are classified at higher levels because of the potential damage that information could do to national interests if it were leaked; other types of information may not be as sensitive but the level of effort used to obtain it could warrant a higher level of classification.
And then there are the classifications such as TS/SCI, which are NOT security clearance levels such as Confidential, Secret, or Top Secret assigned to an employee or servicemember, but an additional layer of classification for information itself.
What Is TS/SCI
The U.S. Department of Commerce official site reminds, “Sensitive Compartmented Information (SCI) is information about certain intelligence sources and methods.” SCI may involve details or other data about “sensitive collection systems, analytical processing, and targeting, or which is derived from it.”
Access to TS/SCI information is permitted on a need-to-know basis for those who have been awarded the appropriate security clearance level. For example, those with a need to know AND a Top Secret clearance may be authorized to view TS/SCI rated material, but someone with only a Secret or Confidential clearance would not.
There are instances of Secret-level classified SCI, those with the appropriate clearance would be authorized to view such material but those without approved clearance levels would be required to obtain them prior to being given access to SCI.
Access To TS/SCI and related material may require the completion of a separate non-disclosure agreement. The agreement on file from the initial security clearance investigation may not be sufficient.
TS/SCI Access is always determined by the need to know. Those who hold high clearances (such as Top Secret) are not automatically authorized to handle or view SCI, they must be granted access first.
Working with TS/SCI
Those who are granted access to TS/SCI material soon learn that SCI materials must be stored according to federal regulations in a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility (SCIF) that includes restricted access and different vetting procedures than for Controlled Area facilities. Even physical access to a location storing TS/SCI information requires prior approval.
Working in a job requiring access to, review of, or making products out of classified information is sometimes referred to as being different than working in a low-risk Public Trust job or position. “Pubic Trust” is not a security clearance, though sometimes government websites refer to it as such.
In the same way that TS/SCI itself is not a security clearance level, working in a Public Trust doesn’t require the same clearances you would need when handling information that could affect national security.
Those who need to work with TS/SCI often either handle existing documents or other items with existing security classifications, or make new “products” out of older information. New products created by these professionals are classified based on the level of classification of the source material.
The workers are not generating new classifications for these new products and are not generally responsible for determining what level things should be classified at.
Who Can Apply For Access To Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmented Information?
Those who have applied for security clearances must first be granted the appropriate clearance. You cannot be granted access to TS/SCI without being vetted and passing the background investigation necessary to be awarded a Confidential, Secret, or Top Secret clearance.
In most cases, TS/SCI access would be required in a job description, at the behest of the supervisor (who must provide written justification for the access) and a separate vetting body may be used to determine if the additional access is warranted.
Those who go through security clearance checks are required to observe personal conduct rules that are established as a condition of holding a security clearance. Those rules include self-reporting foreign contacts, travel, or interests as well as informing the vetting body about any concerns about co-workers or colleagues.
Submitting to a credit check and other investigative procedures is required to be granted access to TS/SCI depending on circumstances. It can take as long as 15 months to complete a full background check including approval for TS/SCI access. You may also be required to complete a polygraph test or other vetting procedures deemed appropriate at application time.
What If I Am Denied TS/SCI Clearance?
On paper, being denied a TS/SCI clearance may not necessarily result in a loss of the overall security clearance of the applicant (Confidential, Secret, Top Secret). But being unable to access TS/SCO can be a major issue for certain military career fields and civilian contractor work; it’s best to understand the issues that can stand in the way of a security clearance in general and assume even greater scrutiny for access to compartmented information.
Those who have difficulty qualifying for TS/SCI may need to ask some important questions about their ability to last in a career field they may not have full access to due to problems with clearance levels.
In certain cases, a secret project or even “black ops” projects may have SCI needs; certain agencies may waive certain restrictions or guidelines in the interest of such projects or actually increase the level of scrutiny depending.
But for most government employees, it’s safe to assume a similar level of attention for TS/SCI access as for Top Secret clearances in general. Some issues may be handled on a case-by-case basis, especially if there are “adjudicative issues” that may result in the government thinking twice about issuing a 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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