People often use the generic term, “security clearance,” when referring to any government determination regarding an individual’s eligibility for access to protected information, facilities, or computer systems, as well as federal employment suitability or fitness. There are 3 major federal personnel security programs and each has its own terminology. All 3 programs have provisions for an interim eligibility authorization pending the completion of a background investigation and a final eligibility determination. All 3 programs require:

  • sponsorship by a federal agency or federal contractor,
  • submission of application forms and fingerprints,
  • investigation of the applicant’s background, and
  • favorable adjudication of the investigation.

The government is in the process of aligning these 3 programs under a single unified structure (see Executive Order 13467), but each program currently has its own standards and processes that are largely separate and distinct from each other. These programs are for:

  • National Security Clearances,
  • Employment Suitability or Fitness, and
  • Homeland Security Presidential Directive 12 (HSPD-12) Credentialing.

National Security Clearances are governed by Executive Order 12968 and exist for the purpose of safeguarding national security information. Under this program federal employee and federal contractor positions are designated as “non-sensitive,” “non-critical sensitive,” “critical sensitive,” and “special sensitive.” Generally position sensitivity designations higher than non-sensitive are directly related to the level of classified national security information for which access is needed (Confidential/Secret, Top Secret, or Sensitive Compartmented Information and certain other Special Access Programs). Some positions may be designated as non-critical sensitive or critical sensitive; even though actual access to classified national security information is not required. Applicants must submit a Standard Form 86—SF86 (Questionnaire for National Security Positions) and undergo one of the following types of background investigations for an initial clearance:

  • National Agency Check with Law and Credit Checks (NACLC) for military and contractor Confidential and Secret clearances,
  • Access National Agency Check with Inquiries (ANACI) for federal employee Confidential and Secret clearances, or
  • Single Scope Background Investigation (SSBI) for all Top Secret, Sensitive Compartmented Information (SCI), and certain other Special Access Program (SAP) clearances.

Some SCI and SAP clearances have an additional requirement of a polygraph examination. The granting or denying of a security clearance is based on the criteria contained in the “Adjudicative Guidelines for Determining Eligibility for Access to Classified Information.” SCI eligibility has additional standards listed in Intelligence Community Directive Number 704. There may be program-specific requirements for other SAP eligibility. E.O. 12968 requires agencies to provide individuals review and appeal rights for clearance denials and revocations, but these rights do not apply to interim clearances. After the granting of a security clearance, reinvestigations are required at periodic intervals (5 years for Top Secret, 10 years for Secret, and 15 years for Confidential). Federal agencies are conditionally required to reciprocally accept clearances granted by other federal agencies.

Employment Suitability is governed by Executive Order 10450 and 5 CFR Part 731 for the purpose of insuring that the selection and retention of federal employees are clearly consistent with the interests of the national security and will maintain the integrity or efficiency of federal service. The term, Employment Suitability, and the provisions of 5 CFR 731 apply primarily to federal “competitive service” appointments These positions are required to be designated as high, moderate, or low risk, depending on the position’s potential for adverse impact to the efficiency or integrity of federal service. “Positions at the high or moderate risk levels would normally be designated as ‘Public Trust’ positions. Such positions may involve policy making, major program responsibility, public safety and health, law enforcement duties, fiduciary responsibilities or other duties demanding a significant degree of public trust, and positions involving access to or operation or control of financial records, with a significant risk for causing damage or realizing personal gain.” Applicants are required to submit either a Standard Form 85—SF85 (Questionnaire for Non-Sensitive Positions) or Standard Form 85P—SF85P (Questionnaire for Public Trust Positions). They may also be required to submit a Standard Form 85P-S—SF85PS (Supplement Questionnaire for Selected Positions) and/or an Optional Form 306 (Declaration for Federal Employment). These forms are used to conduct one of the following background investigations:

  • National Agency Check with Inquiries (NACI) for Low Risk positions;
  • Minimum Background Investigation (MBI) for Moderate Risk positions;
  • Limited Background Investigation (LBI) for Moderate or High Risk positions; or
  • Background Investigation (BI) for High Risk positions.

The basic criteria for making employment suitability determinations are contained in 5 CFR 731.202. Federal agencies are authorized to establish additional job-specific suitability criteria based on the nature of the position. There must be a nexus between the additional criteria, the agency’s mission, and the position duties. Competitive Service applicants and employees are entitled review and appeals rights for any adverse suitability determination. Executive Order 13488 created a requirement that all personnel occupying Public Trust positions be subject to period reinvestigations and gave the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) authority to establish standards for such reinvestigations; however, OPM has not yet established the standards. The only current requirements for reinvestigations of personnel occupying Public Trust positions are those established by individual agencies pursuant to the Federal Information Security Management Act of 2002 (Title III of E-Government Act) and Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Circular No. A–130. Federal agencies are conditionally required to reciprocally accept favorable employment suitability determinations made by other federal agencies.

Employment Fitness is a term used for making hiring or retention decisions for federal “excepted service” positions at all risk levels and Public Trust determinations for contractor positions. Although, 5 CFR Part 731 applies primarily to “competitive service” positions; federal agencies are encourage to apply its provisions to excepted service (see 5 CFR Part 302) and contractor positions. Federal agencies generally follow the investigative requirements and adjudicative standards of 5 CFR Part 731 for employment fitness determinations; however, they rarely provide any review or appeal procedures for excepted service or contractor personnel found to be unfit. Reinvestigation requirements are currently the same as for “competitive service” positions, and conditional reciprocity of fitness determinations is permitted under OPM “Guidance on Implementing Executive Order 13488.”

HSPD-12 Credentialing requires that personnel granted physical access to federally controlled facilities or logical access to federally controlled computer systems be issued standardized Personal Identity Verification (PIV) cards. The purpose of HSPD-12, “Policies for a Common Identification Standard for Federal Employees and Contractors,” is to enhance security, increase government efficiency, reduce identity fraud, and eliminate potential for terrorist attacks. A National Agency Check with Inquiries (NACI) investigation is conducted based on the submission of either an SF85 or SF85P. The completed investigation is adjudicated using OPM’s “Final Credentialing Standards for Issuing Personal Identity Verification Cards under HSPD-12.” OMB Memorandum M-05-24 allows for the reciprocal acceptance of favorably adjudicated NACI and NACLC investigations (or better) previously conducted for HSPD-12 Credentialing, Employment Suitability/Fitness, or National Security Clearance determinations as the basis for granting a PIV card without any further investigation or adjudication. This applies regardless of how long ago the last investigation took place, provided there has not been a break-in-service of more than 2 years since the last background investigation. PIV credentials are valid for no more than 5 years and must be surrendered or cancelled when access is no longer officially required. Currently there is no requirement for reinvestigations for the reissuance of PIV cards. Federal Information Processing Standards Publication 201-1 created a requirement that agencies maintain appeal procedures for those who are denied PIV cards or whose PIV cards are revoked. OPM’s Final Credentialing Standards provides additional information regarding the requirements for appeal procedures and reciprocity.

Individuals who require PIV cards and are also applying for employment with a federal agency or a federal contractor for jobs that are subject to employment suitability/fitness and/or national security clearance determinations are first processed in accordance with the procedures for those programs. A favorable determination under either program can then be used as the basis for issuing a PIV card without any further investigation or adjudication. An unfavorable determination under either program can also be used as the basis for denying a PIV card. Under these circumstances no appeal procedures are required for PIV card denial or revocation.

It is possible to be subject to any combination of these 3 programs. Depending on the timing and sequence in which the programs are encountered, an applicant could submit 3 different application forms with fingerprints, undergo 3 different background investigations, and have each of the 3 investigations adjudicated separately under different standards.

Copyright © 2010 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.