New Federal Investigative Standards

Security Clearance

A December 2008 report by the Joint Security and Suitability Reform Team (JSSRT) announced the approval of revised Federal Investigative Standards for Personnel Security Investigations. The new standards are described in a December 13, 2008 memorandum, “Approval of the Federal Investigative Standards,” signed by the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) as the “Security Executive Agent” and the Acting Director of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) as the “Suitability Executive Agent.” Planned implementation of the new standards will involve “incremental deployment in selected populations anticipated to begin in the second quarter of calendar year 2009.” These new standards cover:

  • Suitability for Government employment;
  • Eligibility for physical and/or logical access to federally controlled facilities and computer systems;
  • Eligibility for access to classified information;
  • Eligible to hold a sensitive position; and
  • Fitness to perform work for or on behalf of the Government as a contractor employee

According to the JSSRT report, the new standards reduce “the types of initial investigations from fifteen to three and the types of reinvestigations from five to two.” The new standards use three levels of position sensitivity, which are designated as:

Tier 1 – low-risk positions, non-sensitive positions, and positions involving physical and/or logical access to government facilities and computer systems.

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Tier 2 – moderate-risk positions, non-critical sensitive positions, and positions requiring access to Confidential, Secret, and Department of Energy (DOE) “L” level information.

Tier 3 – high-risk positions, critical sensitive positions, special sensitive positions, and positions requiring access to Top Secret, DOE “Q,” and Sensitive Compartmented Information.

Initial Investigations for each position sensitive level will consist of:

Tier 1

  1. eApplication.
  2. Corroboration of date and place of birth through appropriate documentation by a trusted information provider.
  3. Submission of fingerprints and a check of appropriate databases for prior federal investigations.
  4. Verification of citizenship or legal resident status of foreign born applicants.
  5. Local law enforcement agency checks at all places of employment, residence, or school attendance of six months or more during the past 5 years. Check of the appropriate criminal justice agency for details and disposition of any identified arrests.
  6. Automated Records Checks (ARC) for information regarding the applicant’s criminal history, involvement in terrorism, validity of Social Security number, education and employment history, employment conduct, military discharge, and Selective Service registration, as appropriate.
  7. Expandable Focused Investigation (EFI) to develop and resolve identified security/suitability issues.

Tier 2

  1. Tier 1 requirements.
  2. Additional ARC for information regarding the applicant’s financial history, foreign associates, business interests, and other foreign connections.

Tier 3

  1. Tier 2 requirements.
  2. Enhanced Subject Interview (ESI)—a comprehensive interview of the applicant to review his or her background to explore any potentially disqualifying conditions and mitigating factors relevant to adjudicative standards.
  3. Review of employment records and interview of supervisors at all place of employment during the past 3 years.
  4. Local law enforcement agency check at a current residence of less than 6 months.
  5. Additional ARC for information regarding the applicant’s civil court records, large currency transactions, possible unexplained affluence, and foreign associations/preference.
  6. ARC for information regarding the applicant’s spouse’s or cohabitant’s criminal history and to verify the U.S. citizenship or legal status of any foreign-born immediate family members.


Reinvestigations/Continuous Evaluation

Tier 1 – No reinvestigation is required, except for the reissuance of a credential (such as a Personal Identification Verification card required under HSPD-12), in which case new fingerprint cards will be submitted for a criminal history check.

Tier 2 – Individuals who require eligibility for access to classified information at the Tier 2 level will be reinvestigated on an aperiodic basis or as required by security-related events, but not less than once every five years. The reinvestigation will consist of a new eApplication, Tier 2 ARC, and an EFI to develop and resolve identified security/suitability issues, as appropriate.

Tier 3 – Individuals who require eligibility for access to classified information at the Tier 3 level will be reinvestigated annually or as required by security-related events. The reinvestigation will consist of a new eApplication, Tier 3 ARC, and an EFI to develop and resolve identified suitability/security issues, as appropriate. At least once every five years an ESI will be conduct as part of a reinvestigation.


The new investigative standards are the most significant change to the U.S. Personnel Security Program since Executive Order 10450 of 1953. The new standard for Tier 3 eliminates much of the field investigation previously conducted for Single Scope Background Investigations (SSBI) required for access to Top Secret, “Q,” and Sensitive Compartmented Information. Eliminated from the field investigation are interviews of neighbors (covering the last 3 years), educational references (last 3 years), employment references (prior years 4 -7), a second employment reference (last 7 years), former spouses, and social references (total of 4), as well as the review of employment records (prior years 4 -7), residential records (last 3 years), and education records (last 3 years).

Aside from the ESI, the only field investigation required for Tier 3 will be an employment record review and an interview of a supervisor at each place of employment during the last 3 years. This may be a meaningful adjunct to the eApplication, ARC, and ESI for applicants who are over 24 years old, but for many who are 18 to 23 it may be far less meaningful than interviews of their friends and/or schoolmates.

At the Tier 3 level the new standards rely heavily on the ability of the ARC and the new eApplication to surface as much or more issue information than the traditional investigative sources that are being eliminated. However, the eApplication is only described in general terms, and there is no indication if there will be only one version of the eApplication or if there will be multiple versions based on Standard Forms 85, 85P, and 86. Multiple versions of the eApplication could cause problems when people try to move laterally within the same tier. The ARC is also described in general terms, and the specific government and commercial databases that will be used are not identified.

The ability of the new standards to reduce investigative turnaround time will depend greatly on the threshold at which a security/suitability issue triggers an EFI. An EFI involves additional investigative actions, beyond the normal investigative components for each tier, to develop and resolve identified security/suitability issues. Because not all security/suitability issues are equal, and because the new ARC may produce issue indicators that are unlike the indicators produced by traditional investigative sources, new methods of measuring these issues and issue indicators will be needed to establish appropriate EFI thresholds that are consistent from agency to agency. This will be especially important in Tier 3 investigations. The SSBI is a relatively comprehensive investigation that requires expansion (now called EFI) in a small percentage of cases where major security/suitability issues are present. To obtain the same level of issue resolution provided by a standard SSBI, a much larger percentage of Tier 3 investigations will require an EFI. Without consistent EFI thresholds, barriers to clearance reciprocity will be created.

Moderate-risk and high-risk positions are defined as public trust positions. The absence of any requirement for reinvestigations of individuals in public trust positions does not comply with Executive Order 13488 issued in January 2009. This executive order made reinvestigations mandatory for public trust positions and made OPM responsible for establishing their standards. No doubt the same officials at OPM who were involved in drafting the executive order were also involved in drafting the memorandum on the new investigative standards. Because of Executive Order 13488, the memorandum establishing the new investigative standards became in need of revision 5 weeks after it was issued.

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