Among people who have been involved with national security clearances the “whole-person” concept has become widely known and often misunderstood.1 Applicants for security clearance are evaluated on potentially disqualifying and mitigating conditions listed under 13 separate guidelines in the “Adjudicative Guidelines for Determining Eligibility for Access to Classified Information.” The Adjudicative Guidelines additionally admonished adjudicators that:

The adjudicative process is an examination of a sufficient period of a person’s life to make an affirmative determination that the person is an acceptable security risk…The adjudication process is the careful weighing of a number of variables known as the whole-person concept. Available, reliable information about the person, past and present, favorable and unfavorable, should be considered in reaching a determination. In evaluating the relevance of an individual’s conduct, the adjudicator should consider the following factors: (emphasis added)

  1. The nature, extent, and seriousness of the conduct;
  2. the circumstances surrounding the conduct, to include knowledgeable participation;
  3. the frequency and recency of the conduct;
  4. the individual’s age and maturity at the time of the conduct;
  5. the extent to which participation is voluntary;
  6. the presence or absence of rehabilitation and other permanent behavioral changes;
  7. the motivation for the conduct;
  8. the potential for pressure, coercion, exploitation, or duress; and
  9. the likelihood of continuation or recurrence.

These 9 factors, often referred to as the “General Criteria,” must be considered together with the applicable disqualifying and mitigating conditions listed under the 13 guidelines. But these are not the only factors and conditions that may be considered. The adjudicator should consider all aspects of the case that are relevant and material to the applicant’s trustworthiness and reliability.2 Unlike all the other mitigating factors that might apply to a security issue, only the last general criterion (“the likelihood of continuation or recurrence”) suggests consideration of a person’s general behavior before and after the conduct that resulted in the potentially disqualifying condition.

The problem with implementing the whole-person concept is the availability of information not directly related to the disqualifying condition(s) and the availability of information regarding some issue-specific mitigating conditions unique to each of the 13 guidelines.

Adjudication that results in a preliminary decision to deny or revoke a clearance is based on the applicant’s Questionnaire for National Security Position (SF86) and the investigative results—primarily the Reports of Investigation (ROI) and credit report. ROIs rarely include information regarding whole-person factors, other than those listed under the General Criteria, and almost all of the General Criteria address factors directly related to disqualifying conduct. This is because most investigative agencies use an abbreviated report writing style that focuses almost entirely on security/suitability issues.

Investigators are trained to report potentially disqualifying conditions, as well as information related to the General Criteria, but they receive little training on issue-specific mitigating conditions. Consequently issue-specific mitigating conditions, such as remorse/restitution or constructive community involvement for the issue of criminal conduct and total financial net worth as an indicator the relative value of foreign financial interests, are seldom recorded in ROIs.

Such things as recognition for professional accomplishments, consistent exemplary work performance, and academic achievements are usually not recorded in ROIs, unless there is an allegation of work- or school-related misconduct, and even then there is a possibility that they might not be recorded. Participation in civic, social, professional, educational, religious, and charitable organizations, as well as other forms of constructive community involvement, usually does not appear in ROIs, unless an interviewee’s knowledge of the applicant was based on contact related to one of these activities.

Without corroboration by an investigator or supporting documents, information on positive whole-person factors added to the comment sections of an SF86 has little adjudicative value. In some cases it is possible to submit supporting documents as an addendum to the SF86 for consideration during an interim clearance decision. It is also possible to provide supporting documents to an investigator during a Personal Subject Interview (PRSI) or Special Interview (SPIN), but it is difficult for an investigator to submit attachments with an ROI. Documents given to an investigator can usually only be summarized and included in the narrative text of the ROI. Consequently, the submission of documents that support positive whole-person factors usually does not occur until an applicant responds to a written notification (Letter of Intent or Letter of Instruction—LOI) that a government agency intends to deny or revoke his/her clearance. The LOI includes a “Statement of Reasons—SOR” detailing the applicable disqualifying conditions and conduct.

Most applicants are unaware that evidence of positive whole-person factors unrelated to disqualifying condition(s) is rarely considered by adjudicators unless applicants provide it themselves. This type of information is not elicited by the questions on an SF86, nor is it requested by an investigator during a PRSI or SPIN. LOIs generally include instructions advising that the applicant must submit a detailed written answer to the SOR that includes an admission or denial each allegation. The Department of Defense (DOD) “Instructions for Responding to Statement of Reasons (SOR)” at Appendix 11 to DOD 5200.2-R, Personnel Security Program, contains one sentence concerning the submission of documents related to whole-person factors:

“You may provide statements from co-workers, supervisors, your commander, friends, neighbors and others concerning your judgment, reliability and trustworthiness, and any other information that you think ought to be considered before a final decision is made.”

This sentence can easily be overlooked, because the instructions repeatedly emphasize submitting information that refutes, mitigates, extenuates, or explains the specific disqualifying information listed in the SOR.

The DOD “Instructions for Appealing a Letter of Denial/Revocation (LOD)”3 does not address whole-person factors at all and provides little guidance on the substance of appeals, but it makes reference to the information contained in the instructions for responding to an SOR.

Information that directly mitigates the potentially disqualifying condition(s) listed in the SOR is more important than positive whole-person factors. But positive whole-person factors can be used as the basis for supporting a favorable determination when information that directly mitigates a specific disqualifying condition does not exist or is insufficient.

Many applicants do not consider submitting evidence of positive whole-person factors until they have to respond to an SOR or appeal an LOD. Consequently this evidence is not available to adjudicators who can make a favorable determination at earlier stages of the adjudicative process. In cases involving major derogatory information, submitting this evidence at the earliest possible stage of the clearance process can reduce the time and increase the chance of a favorable determination.


1 Although the use of the “whole-person” concept is clearly a requirement for national security clearance adjudications; its use is not specifically addressed in the standards for federal employment suitability/fitness or HSPD-12 credentialing determinations.

2 Defense Office of Hearings and Appeals, Case No. 04-00540.a1 (App. Bd. January 5, 2007).

3 DOD instructions for appealing an LOD are also at Appendix 11 to DOD 5200.2-R. In November 2007 this regulation was changed to allow witnesses to testify at “Personal Appearances.”

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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.