Security Clearance Career Profiles: Investigating the Tough Cases

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Career Profiles: A Day in DOHA

Until recently I worked at the Defense Office of Hearings and Appeals (DOHA) where I adjudicated background investigations on defense contractors who had applied for security clearances. Defense contractor cases are usually handled by the Defense Industrial Security Clearance Office (DISCO), but when DISCO is unable to grant a clearance due to the complexity of the case, the entire file is sent to DOHA.

I occasionally received an easily resolved single-issue case, but most cases that arrived at my desk were incomplete and contained multiple complex issues. These cases involved applicants with massive unresolved issues, such as delinquent debts, criminal records (some dating back to the 1960s), drug use, current alcohol abuse, foreign preference or nationality concerns, and deliberate falsification.

DOHA is now located at Fort Meade, Md. in a new state-of-the-art building specifically designed for clearance adjudication. DOHA shares the building with 9 other DOD adjudication agencies. The new facility is very secure. Personnel are required to clear 3 different checkpoints before arriving at their desks. Building rules don’t allow for any recording devices, cell phones or laptops to come inside. Lockers for the storage of such personal items are provided near the metal detectors in the reception area. Once inside, I would go directly to my workspace, a cubicle in a sea of cubicles.

After dropping my purse and lunch, I listen to 6 to 10 phone messages left for me since leaving work the previous evening. I turn on my computer and review the list of names from the phone messages, with full intent to marry them up with the actual file before attempting a return phone call.

Once logged into the computer, I pull up my email. Email is vital in DOHA. And by vital, I mean a lifeline. All information is passed in office email, from “Important all hands meeting in 20 minutes” to “Who left the coffee pot totally empty and still on?”

The Learning Curve

Learning to be a DOHA adjudicator takes close to two years before being comfortable in your own ability. The normal progression of formal training includes the Basic Personnel Security Adjudication Course, the Advanced Personnel Security Adjudication Course, and the SCI Adjudication Course. Much of our informal training comes in small doses from coworkers and supervisors. Our ongoing training material is cumulatively located within a file on email. Updates to procedures and changes in processes are passed via email and all adjudicators are expected to be familiar with each one. Your only other training is trial and error. I’ve asked older experienced adjudicators a lot of questions and solicited opinions from anyone unlucky enough to be walking by my cubicle at the time. Weekly meetings bring everyone onto the same page about issues and present an opportunity to question management about other matters.

After returning calls, answering emails and finally putting my room temperature lunch in the refrigerator, I open my cases. Let’s say I open a new “raw case,” a file that DISCO couldn’t clear for some reason. DISCO adjudicators don’t forward any notes on their case findings, so I have to start from the beginning. When I open a raw case, the first thing I do review is the Electronic Questionnaire for Investigations Processing, (e-QIP). What adverse information did the applicant disclose? I document this information on a worksheet. Then I review the investigative reports and all the other records in the file. Is there anything adverse in the rest of the case that wasn’t mentioned in the e-QIP? Was the scope of the investigation met? Have all the adverse issues been favorably resolved or can they be mitigated appropriately according to federal guidelines? I take these and other questions into account when I’ve completed the initial review of the raw case.

The Options

Based on this snapshot of the case, I choose one of a few options. One option is to recommend granting or continuing a clearance and send it to a 2nd reviewer. Making a favorable recommendation on a new case is increasingly rare. Another option is to send the file back to DISCO for a “re-open” or “further investigation” (FI) to obtain missing investigative scope requirements or other records. The FI is also becoming increasingly rare, because of the lengthy turnaround time. Management is now having the adjudicators ask for missing information directly from the applicant via the third option—Interrogatories. Interrogatories are formal letters sent directly to the applicant requesting specific information needed to make a decision on the case. Interrogatories are the most common form of correspondence from DOHA. They place the burden on the applicant to provide the needed information.

A favorable clearance determination is often made based on an applicant’s response to an Interrogatory, but many cases graduate to the next phase of adjudication that involves the issuance of a letter of intent to deny or revoke a clearance, accompanied by a “Statement of Reasons” (SOR).

The work habits and productivity of adjudicators vary greatly. Some adjudicators will regularly “close”10 to 15 cases a day, while others will struggle to finalize decisions on one or two. The completeness and complexity of a case directly affects the closing timeline.

While my days of adjudicating security clearance investigations are over, my sleeping brain often reminds me of each step. My dreams are realistic enough that I can still wake with angry feelings because the coffee pot in the break room was empty again. Am I the only one who knows how to make coffee?

 

 

Ericka Cady is a personnel security consultant and former DOHA Security Clearance Adjudicator.

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