One of the most frequently asked questions by security clearance applicants is, ‘what is my chance of getting a security clearance?’

The Defense Industrial Security Clearance Office (DISCO) processes the vast majority of security clearances for federal contractor personnel. Administratively the adjudicative process at DISCO is slightly different from other federal adjudicative facilities, but case outcomes are statistically similar at all facilities.

DISCO receives completed security clearance investigations from the Office of Personnel Management (OPM). DISCO reviews the investigations, but they can only grant security clearances; they are not authorized to deny or revoke security clearances. If derogatory information in a case reaches a certain threshold, it must be referred from DISCO to the Defense Office of Hearings and Appeals (DOHA) for adjudication. The table below shows the progression of completed investigations once they are received at DISCO and work their way through the adjudicative process. Cases containing the most serious derogatory information, typically go through 4 levels of adjudicative review (not including the appeal process) before a final decision is made to deny or revoke a clearance, but the granting of a clearance can occur at the first level or at any of the subsequent review levels.

Typical Distribution of DISCO/DOHA Case Outcomes

Completed investigations received by DISCO 150,000
Clearances granted by DISCO 142,000
Cases referred from DISCO to DOHA 8,000
Clearances granted by DOHA staff adjudicators 5,800
Statement of Reasons (SOR)1 issued by DOHA 2,200
Clearances denied or revoked due to no response to SOR 500
SOR responses received by DOHA 1,700
Clearances granted by DOHA after review of SOR response 400
Cases referred to DOHA Administrative Judges 1,300
Clearances granted by DOHA Administrative Judges 450
Clearances denied or revoked by DOHA Administrative Judges 850

About 1% or 1,350 cases (sum of the 2 figures shown in red) of the approximately 150,000 completed investigations received by DISCO each year result in clearance denial or revocation. About 20% to 30% of cases decided by DOHA Administrative Judges are appealed by either the applicant or the DOHA Department Counsel.

While 99% may seem like a very large percentage of clearance approvals, it does not accurately reflect the true percentage of people who are eligible for a security clearance. An unknown number of people choose not to apply for positions that require a clearance, because they believe there are factors in their life that would inevitably result in a clearance denial. Some potential applicants fail to receive sponsorship, because they are screened out of the process by prospective employers. Others drop out of the process, because major derogatory information causes the process to continue for an unacceptable period of time. Many are not hired, because they fail to receive an interim clearance required for the job by the prospective employer due to derogatory information. In 2008 DISCO declined to grant interim clearances to 39% of applicants.

For the vast majority of people who apply for a clearance and are able to remain in the process until a final decision is received, the more important questions are “how long will it take to receive a clearance?” and “what can I do to reduce the time it takes to receive a clearance?” The average end-to-end elapse times by agency for the fastest 90% of cases are listed in the article, “Security Clearances:  How Long Do They Take.” As for the other 10%, less than 1% of initial clearance investigations conducted by OPM take more than 180 days, but about 5% of clearance adjudications take more than 180 days. This is primarily because of the multiple levels of adjudicative review before a final decision can be made in cases involving serious security issues.

For applicants whose cases contain no derogatory information or only minor derogatory information, interim Secret clearances are granted a few days after the clearance application is submitted, and interim Top Secret clearances are granted within a few weeks. In the past most final clearance delays were due to the backlog of investigations. Today the length of time it takes to get a final security clearance decision usually depends more on the level of adjudicative review at which the decision is made. Applicants who receive interim clearances usually receive their final clearances in less than the average time. This is because their clearances are usually granted by the first-level adjudicator. For applicants whose cases contain moderate to major derogatory information, the earlier they are able to effectively articulate all the mitigating factors directly relevant to the issues present in their cases, the greater the probability that they will be granted clearances at one of the earlier stages of adjudication. Cases containing very serious/complex issues and those than can only be mitigated by positive “whole person” factors are usually decided by third- or fourth-level adjudicators and take the longest amount of time. Mitigating information can be provided by the applicant at different times during the clearance process:

  • When completing the clearance application form.
  • During a face-to-face interview with an investigator.
  • In response to a “Written Interrogatory” when requested by an adjudicator.
  • In response to an SOR.
  • In response to “File of Relevant Material” (FORM)2 or at a hearing (DOHA cases only).


1 An SOR is a written notice of why a preliminary determination to deny or revoke a security clearance has been made. Some agencies use the term, Letter of Intent or LOI instead of SOR.

2 The FORM contains all the information that will be presented to a DOHA Administrative Judge by the DOHA Department Counsel (attorney) when a hearing has not been requested. It is equivalent to the pre-hearing disclosure the Department Counsel makes to the applicant regarding the information the Department Counsel plans to submit at the hearing.

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William H. Henderson is a retired federal clearance investigator, President of Federal Clearance Assistance Service (FEDCAS), author of Security Clearance Manual, Issue Mitigation Handbook, and a regular contributor to and