The Personal Subject Interview (PRSI) is a required part of all investigations and periodic reinvestigations for Top Secret clearances. PRSIs are conducted by federal investigators (Special Agents) and federal contract investigators (Special Investigators). Interview procedures vary slightly from agency to agency, but most agencies follow the same basic format and cover the same topical areas.

The PRSI should take about an hour for the average person who has completed the clearance application form (Standard Form 86—SF86) accurately and only has a few residences, jobs, and schools listed on the form. If you have had extensive foreign travel, foreign contacts, or problems involving such things as alcohol, drugs, finances, or criminal conduct, the interview could take much longer. Usually there is only one investigator, but occasionally a second investigator may be present. An applicant has the right to have a personal representative or attorney present during the interview, but this is rarely necessary or beneficial. You should:

  • Arrive promptly for the interview and silence your cell phone.
  • Don’t bring any weapons with you into the interview room, even if you are authorized to have them.
  • Bring a government-issued photo ID, such as a driver’s license or military ID card.
  • Bring a personal address book or anything that contains contact information on your associates and family members.
  • Bring a copy of your SF86.
  • If your case involves some security issues, bring any relevant documents with you to the interview, such as birth/citizenship certificates, passports, financial documents, court records, etc.
  • Ask the investigator for a business card.

After identifying himself with his badge and credentials and examining your identification, the investigator usually begins by explaining the purpose of the interview, the provisions of the Privacy Act, and the criminal penalties for false statements. You will also be reminded that your participation in the interview is voluntary. It’s your choice to answer some, all, or none of the questions. However, refusal to answer any legitimate question can result in a security clearance denial. Only when the investigator asks a question that is obviously beyond the scope of a security investigation, can you refuse to answer and not risk a clearance denial. Such questions usually relate to religious beliefs, opinions regarding racial matters, political or union affiliations, and lawful sexual conduct that would not make you susceptible to blackmail. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) federal investigators have the applicant answer questions under oath or affirmation. OPM contract investigators have the applicant make an unsworn declaration. Both procedures carry equal weight under the law.

The investigator will essentially cover every question on your SF86 to confirm the accuracy and completeness of the information you provided, plus some questions that are not on the form. Questions on the SF86 cover most of the security issues listed in the Adjudicative Guidelines for Determining Eligibility for Access to Classified Information. But a few of the 13 guidelines are either not addressed or only partially addressed in the SF86. In one manner or another, questions covering all 13 guidelines will be asked during the interview.

Like the SF86, interview questions are based on certain time periods. Some questions pertain to your entire life. Others pertain only to the last 7 or 10 years (or back to your 16th or 18th birthday depending on your age). For the purpose of the interview questions, the seven- or ten-year time frame is based on the date you completed the SF86. If you completed the SF86 on November 1, 2009, ten years includes everything between November 1, 1999 and the date of your interview. Under certain circumstances investigators are authorized to ask about relevant information regardless of how long ago it occurred.

The investigator will ask for details about any potential security issue information listed on your SF86. The investigator will also try to discover unfavorable information that is not listed on the SF86. Answer the investigator’s questions as precisely, truthfully and completely. Many investigators follow the sequence of the questions on the SF86, so you can follow along on your copy of the form. As each question is asked volunteer any information that mitigates, clarifies, explains, extenuates or otherwise decreases the possible negative effect of unfavorable information you listed on your SF86. It’s the investigator’s responsibility to ask questions that will elicit the details regarding anything that might be considered a security issue. These questions will cover who, what, when, where, how, why, and who else knows. Additionally investigators are trained to determine and report the following factors:

(1) nature, extent, and seriousness of the conduct;

(2) circumstances surrounding the conduct, to include knowledgeable participation;

(3) frequency and recency of the conduct;

(4) individual’s age and maturity at the time of the conduct;

(5) extent to which participation is voluntary;

(6) presence or absence of rehabilitation and other permanent behavioral changes;

(7) motivation for the conduct;

(8) potential for pressure, coercion, exploitation, or duress; and

(9) likelihood of continuation or recurrence.


These factors are taken from the Adjudicative Guidelines and known as the “general criteria.” However, each of the 13 guidelines has it own set of mitigating conditions, many of which are not specifically cover by the general criteria. Unfortunately OPM investigators receive little training on the unique mitigating conditions listed under each of the 13 guidelines. Therefore, you should be prepared to volunteer mitigating information that is not elicited by the investigator’s questions.

If the investigator fails to ask you about any unfavorable information listed on your SF86, mention the information yourself. If you don’t, it will have to be addressed during a follow-up interview and will delay your clearance. If you have been involved in serious misconduct, had significant financial problems, or have extensive foreign connections, it would be wise to make a written explanation of the situation(s), including all applicable mitigating conditions. Give a copy of the written explanation to the investigator.

You may be asked to sign a specific release for information concerning financial matters, mental health counseling, and/or substance abuse counseling. Refusal to sign a release, even if you know that the information being sought does not exist, can result in having your clearance denied.

If you and the investigator prepare properly for your PRSI, the interview should be completed in one session. Occasionally at some point after the PRSI, there may be a need for a follow-up contact with the investigator. This usually occurs when you were unable to provide some information at the time, the need for a written release arises later, some minor matter requires further clarification, or you later remember some pertinent information. If a major discrepancy or security issue surfaces through one of the other components of the security investigation, it usually necessitates a separate “Special Interview” to resolve the matter.

William H. Henderson is a retired security investigator, author of Security Clearance Manual, and regular contributor to and

Copyright © 2009 Last Post Publishing. All rights reserved.



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William H. Henderson is a former Army Counterintelligence Agent and a retired federal clearance investigator. In 2007 he began helping clearance applicants from the pre-application stage through representation at hearings and appeals. Since 2012, he’s been the Principal Consultant at the Federal Clearance Assistance Service (FEDCAS). His first two books on security clearances have been used at five universities and colleges. He recently published the 2nd Edition of Issue Mitigation Handbook. He’s contributed scores of articles to, and he’s been retained as an expert witness in several state and federal lawsuits.