Obtaining and keeping a security clearance is a requirement for many federal workers, military personnel, and contractors who support the U.S. government in their jobs.

But what happens if they run awry of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and fall behind on payment of their federal taxes? The Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently conducted and published a study on this question, and their findings could potentially impact the 4.9 million civilian, military, and contract employees that currently hold security clearances, and those who apply for them in the future.

Of those security cleared individual found to have IRS tax debt, GAO determined 4,700 of the approximately 8,400 were federal employees, and the remainder were government contractors.

According to the study, those 8,400 federal employees adjudicated as eligible for security clearances (from April 2006 to December 2011) owed approximately $85 million in unpaid federal taxes; and 4,200 of them had arranged scheduled plans to pay back their debts.

It may be interesting to note that current federal laws do not prohibit an individual with unpaid federal taxes from holding a security clearance, but it is recognized that any tax debt poses a potential vulnerability.

GAO could not determine the number of individuals who were denied security clearances due to IRS tax debts, as there is currently no process to detect unpaid federal taxes accrued after an individual has been favorably adjudicated unless: it is self-reported, reported by a security manager due to garnishment of wages, or discovered during a clearance renewal or upgrade.

Furthermore, GAO’s analysis found that 6,300 individuals (approximately 75 percent) accrued their tax debt after approval of the security clearance.

The study concluded that in the future, it would be beneficial for government agencies to be able to gain routine access to IRS debt information; and would provide federal agencies with a means to identify relevant financial information in order to make more educated assessments for applicants and current security clearance holders.

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Diana M. Rodriguez is a native Washingtonian who works as a professional freelance writer, commentator, and blogger; as well as a public affairs, website content and social media manager for the Department of Defense.