Many people who find themselves filling out a Standard Form 86 (SF86), “Questionnaire for National Security Positions,” know little about the security clearance process and have a vague understanding of what might affect their eligibility to receive a clearance. Some will scour the internet looking for information. Others will rely entirely on the guidance provided by their sponsor’s security officer, however thorough or limited it might be. Few seek the assistance of a security clearance consultant or attorney.
The average security clearance denial rate among federal agencies is about 2.5%, but that doesn’t mean that 97.5% of the general population will be eligible for a clearance. It means that of the people who make it to the final stages of the security clearance process, 2.5% are denied a clearance. Many people don’t bother to apply for jobs 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 clearance sponsorship, because they are screened out of the process by prospective employers. Others, who initially receive sponsorship, have sponsorship withdrawn before a final clearance decision is made, because they fail to receive an interim clearance. An unknown percentage of applicants who are lucky enough to retain sponsorship despite having an interim clearance declined, later drop out of the process, because the unfavorable information in their background delays the process for so long that either they or their prospective employer cannot wait any longer for a final clearance decision.
The percentage of the population that might be eligible for a security clearance is much lower than 97.5%, and the percentage of the population that can actually get a job offer that results in a final clearance is probably about 65%. For most applicants the problem is not eligibility for a final clearance; the problem is eligibility for an interim clearance and/or receiving a final clearance within a reasonable period of time, so they can get and keep the job.
Since 2007, time required to conduct a background investigation has been significantly reduced, but this has resulted in a decrease in the quality of investigative reports. As a result, today the most time consuming delays normally occur during the adjudication phase of the clearance process. Adjudicators struggle to decide cases that lack sufficient information or contain unresolved issues. They are often faced with the choice of further delaying a case by requesting additional information or making a poor decision based on an inadequate investigation. Questionable decisions can sit on a supervisory adjudicator’s desk for weeks before they are approved or returned to the adjudicator for more work.
Over the past five years I’ve helped well over a thousand people with their security clearance problems and questions, and I’ve studied in detail the systemic problems in clearance processing. What I’ve learned is that about 15% of applicants will have their application forms rejected by the Government due to improper or incomplete forms submission, resulting in delays of four to eight weeks before they are required to resubmit their applications, if the job is still available. About 30% will be screened out by employers or declined an interim clearance and not get hired. About 50%—the fortunate ones—will receive an interim clearance within a week and a final Secret clearance within six to eight weeks of submitting an SF86. The remaining 20% will wait from a few to several months. Top Secret clearance processing takes twice as long as Secret clearances.
I divide clearance applicants into four categories of equal size based on the unfavorable information in their backgrounds: Clean—Minor—Moderate—Major. With little or no assistance applicants in the “Clean” and “Minor” categories will move swiftly through the system and get their clearances within two to four months. Without assistance those in the Moderate category will see their cases drag out for several months before their clearance is finally granted, and those in the Major category may wait a year and some will ultimately be denied a clearance. Applicants in each group can help their own cases move faster through the process.
Applicants in the “Clean” and “Minor” categories only need to read a few authoritative articles on the process and fill out their forms carefully to avoid most of the detours and roadblocks that delay a favorable clearance decision. They need to spend about as much effort on the clearance application as they do preparing their tax returns.
Those in the “Moderate” category need to study the process in depth and perhaps pay for a little professional help. Simply searching the internet for information won’t be enough and usually takes too long. There are many well-intentioned people who write articles and answer questions on various blogs, but their knowledge is often based on their personal experiences as clearance applicants or from reading a few Government documents or articles by others. I’m often dismayed by the misinformation published on reputable websites. The best published sources of information are Government documents, but searching for them on the internet is difficult, unless you already know which documents you need or know the precise “keywords” to find them. If you find them, you have to be able to decipher what they say. A well-written book on security clearances will cite the relevant Government documents and explain them. Unfortunately, even a well-written book cannot address all aspects of the clearance process. There are dozens of Government agencies that grant security clearances, and each one has a slightly different process and interpretation of Government policy. Applicants whose cases fall into the “Major” category need professional help, if they want to reduce the time and increase the possibility of receiving a clearance. Knowledgeable, experienced former background investigators can help people reduce the time it takes for their investigations and provide general guidance on issue mitigation, but former Government security clearance adjudicators are better qualified to provide security clearance assistance. They know what information is needed from the applicant to make a clearance decision. They also know how much issue mitigation is required to overcome potentially disqualifying factors and how it needs to be presented to achieve the best possible results in the shortest possible time. The few applicants whose cases make it to the administrative hearing or personal appearance stage of adjudication are best served by the assistance of an attorney who specializes and has experience in representing security clearance applicants. This is not a common legal specialty and experience matters.
The cost of an attorney with more than 10 years of experience will range from $300 to $450 an hour depending on experience and location. Some of the assistance provided by an attorney may be done by a paralegal whose billing rate should be between $120 and $160 an hour. A well-qualified independent security clearance consultant will charge a little more than an attorney’s billing rate for a paralegal.
By comparison the cost of having simple tax returns with itemized deductions prepared by an account is about $250. These types of tax returns are comparable to clearance cases that are “Clean” or contain only minor unfavorable information. For cases ranging from single moderate to multiple major issues, a security clearance consultant will charge from $300 to $1,500 and an experienced attorney will charge about twice that much. Representation before an administrative judge will add to the cost. Nevertheless, professional assistance for cases involving moderate to major issues is much less costly than weeks or months of lost wages caused by clearance processing delays and missed employment opportunities.
Individuals who already have a clearance and encounter moderate to major security issues should also seek professional assistance. Both cleared personnel and clearance applicants who anticipate problems should seek professional help as early possible. Failure to do the right thing at the proper time can complicate problems, resulting in additional delays and/or unwarranted clearance suspensions, denials, or revocations.
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