Interim federal suitability, fitness, credentialing,1 and security clearance determinations are based on the completion of partial investigative requirements and are granted on a temporary basis, pending completion of the full investigative requirements and a final eligibility determination.

For many applicants interim clearances are critical. Most interim clearances can be granted in as little as 30 days, but final clearances can take months. Not all federal agencies consider interim clearances for all positions, but interim clearances have become widely used because of the excessive length of time it took to complete clearance investigations in the recent past. Many employers need to fill vacant positions quickly and cannot wait for applicants to receive final clearances. Often job candidates receive “Conditional Offers of Employment” (COE) from prospective employers contingent on obtaining an interim clearance. If the interim clearance is “declined,”2 the COE is withdrawn, and another candidate who either already has a clearance or who quickly receives an interim clearance is hired.

The denial rate for final security clearances is only about 1%; whereas, the declination rate for interim security clearances has been about 20% to 30%3. For applicants with unfavorable information in their personal histories, it’s necessary to mitigate this information at the clearance application stage of the process in order to receive an interim clearance.

Interim clearances can be declined when any potentially disqualifying condition exists. Sometimes it’s not possible to fully mitigate a potentially disqualifying issue without the information obtained through a clearance investigation, but often it is possible to receive an interim clearance, if the applicant provides information on the clearance application form that fully mitigates the disqualifying information. This is because interim clearance decisions are made before the clearance investigation is completed. For example, if a drug-related issue occurred several years ago, it can sometimes be mitigated by merely listing the type, frequency, circumstances, and dates of drug use as required by the application form. But some questions on the clearance application forms do not specifically ask for mitigating information, and failure to provide this information can result in an interim clearance declination. Applicants should always include as much mitigating information as possible in the “Continuation Space” (or in an addendum) at the end of the paper version of the application forms or in the “Optional Comment” field following the appropriate question on the e-QIP (Electronic Questionnaire for Investigations Processing) version of the forms.

Once granted, an interim clearance can be withdrawn any time previously undisclosed adverse information surfaces during the background investigation. There is no right to rebut or appeal the declination or withdrawal of an interim clearance, and Government agencies are not required to give any reason for either action.

Most final security clearances are issued by Central Adjudication Facilities (CAF).4 There are about 120 federal CAFs employing several hundred trained professional adjudicators. There are a much larger number of personnel security specialists assigned to a multitude of regional and local military and Government security offices that initiate and process security clearance requests. These specialists are authorized to make interim security clearance decisions, and their level of training and experience vary greatly. Consequently there is less consistency in interim security clearance decisions than in final security clearance decisions. Interim and final employment suitability, employment fitness, and credentialing determinations are generally made by regional and local Government Human Resources (HR) offices.

Cases involving potentially disqualifying information go through multiple levels of adjudicative review before a final clearance is made. Interim clearances are usually decided base on a single review of the case file. Therefore, interim clearance decisions may depend more on the experience and training of the decision maker than on the persuasiveness of the mitigating information submitted. In the vast majority of cases where applicants receive interim clearances, they later receive final clearances.

Final security clearance, suitability, fitness, and credentialing determinations are made based on the following investigations:

Low Risk (contractor) None
Low Risk (federal employee) National Agency Check with Inquiries (NACI)
Moderate Risk Public Trust Moderate Risk Background Investigation (MBI)
High Risk Public Trust Background Investigation (BI)
Confidential/Secret (federal employee) Access National Agency Check with Inquiries (ANACI)
Confidential/Secret (contractor & military) National Agency Check with Law and Credit (NACLC)
Top Secret Single Scope Background Investigation (SSBI)
HSPD-12 Credential National Agency Check with Inquiries or better

An Interim Confidential or Secret clearance can be granted on the basis of a favorable review of the applicant’s Questionnaire for National Security Positions (SF-86), a review of appropriate federal clearance databases, and the submission of a request for a NACLC or ANACI. An Interim Top Secret (TS) clearance can be granted on the basis of a favorable review of the applicant’s SF-86; a favorable National Agency Check; a favorable credit report; and the submission of a request for an SSBI. A decision regarding an interim Confidential, Secret or Top Secret clearance can be made within 30 days (but may take several months). The Defense Industrial Security Clearance Office (DISCO), which handles most federal contractor clearances, considers all applicants for an interim Secret clearance. DISCO considers all applicants for TS clearances for both an interim Secret clearance and later for an interim TS clearance. As previously stated, some federal agencies do not grant interim clearances, and some only consider granting interim clearances to applicants for designated positions.

There is no Government-wide rule regarding interim employment suitability or fitness determinations. Title 5 Code of Federal Regulations, Section 731.104 states: “There is no time limit . . . to conduct the required investigation of an applicant. . . . Investigations should be initiated before appointment but no later than 14 calendar days after placement in the position.” Consequently each federal agency has its own policy regarding interim suitability and fitness determinations. The use of interim suitability/fitness determinations permits agencies to place applicants in jobs and reduces the possibility of unfavorable final determinations that would result in employment termination. Typically, interim suitability and fitness determinations are based on a review of the applicant’s application forms; a check of federal clearance databases, and sometimes a screening interview by an HR specialist.

Interim HSPD-12 credentials can be issued based on positive identification of the applicant and favorable advance results of the FBI National Criminal History (fingerprint) Check portion of the NACI.

1  Credentialing refers to Personal Identity Verification (PIV) cards and Common Access Cards (CAC) issued in compliance with Homeland Security Presidential Directive 12 (HSPD-12).
The word “declined” is not the same as “denied.” An interim clearance declination does not have to be reported when answering the question regarding clearance denials on the Standard Form 86 and the Standard Form 85P.
3  Because suitability, fitness, or credentialing determinations are decentralized, no data are available on interim or final declination/denial rates.
4  The most notable except is the Department of Energy (DOE), which favorably adjudicates cases at regional security offices, but refers cases where unfavorable action is contemplated to the DOE Headquarters’ Office of Security for review. 

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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.