Government issued security clearances can be confusing and mysterious for those who have never been through the process. There are many misconceptions and questions surrounding security clearances, and recent events in national news have many wondering about the process and how a person enters the close circle of cleared professionals. Any job seeker interested in working for certain agencies within Federal Government, whether as a contractor or a Federal employee, should understand the mechanics of obtaining, and keeping, a security clearance. Most questions center on the process of investigation and what is required, and how a person gets started. There are dozens of Federal agencies that process clearances. All agencies use the same basic procedures and standards for granting or denying clearances, but many agencies use their own resources to make clearance decisions.

Security Clearance 101- Understanding the Background and Requirements

A security clearance is a determination by the United States Government that a person or company is eligible for access to classified information. The term “eligibility for access” means the same thing as security clearance and appears in some Government record systems.

About 87% of all Personnel Security Investigations (PSIs) are conducted on Department of Defense (DoD) personnel (Federal employees, military, and contractors). The next largest are Department of Homeland Security (DHS) (including its component agencies) at about 3% and Department of Energy (DoE) at about 1.2%. Each of the other agencies processes only a fraction of 1% of the 850,000 PSIs conducted each year. Because the DoD personnel security program dwarfs the combined size of all other Federal agency programs, it’s necessary to focus on DoD when discussing security clearance processing.

Most agencies use the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) as their Investigation Service Provider (ISP), but many agencies have statutory or delegated authority to use other ISPs or their own internal investigative personnel. Consequently there are significant differences in the time it takes to complete a security clearance. For DoD clearances a cleared contractor or Government agency identifies an employee with a need to have access to classified information, based on the requirements of his or her position.

Once identified, the contractor’s Facility Security Officer (FSO) or the Government agency’s Security Officer (SO) submits an investigation request through the Joint Personnel Adjudication System (JPAS) and ensures that the employee completes a clearance application in the Electronic Questionnaires for Investigations Processing (e-QIP). The FSO or SO then reviews, approves, and forwards the completed e-QIP to the DoD Central Adjudication Facilities (DoDCAF) for their approval, issuance of an interim clearance, and release to OPM. OPM conducts an investigation and sends the results of the investigation to DoDCAF. DoDCAF either grants a clearance or issues a Letter of Intent to deny clearance. Clearances for other Federal agencies are processed in essentially the same manner, but can involve a different ISP.

Clearance Levels

There are three levels of clearance: Confidential, Secret, and Top Secret. The clearance level required for a specific job will be determined by the agency, and the duties required. There are two types of clearances: Personnel Security Clearances (PCLs) and Facility Security Clearances (FCLs). Federal security clearances are those administered under the National Industrial Security Program (NISP). Those interested in working in the cleared professional community should be sure they are eligible to hold a clearance for the job description they are seeking. Many agencies and contracting companies will not hire unless the applicant has an existing clearance, as they are not able or willing to incur the expense or wait for the interim clearance to be adjudicated. For DoD clearances a cleared contractor or Government agency identifies an employee with a need to have access to classified information. Depending on the level and length of an investigation, obtaining a security clearance can be expensive and time-consuming. In April 2012,

The Defense Industrial Security Clearance Office (DISCO) reported average end-to-end processing time of 99 days for the fastest 90% of defense contractor Top Secret clearances and 52 days for Secret clearances. With some exceptions most Federal agencies are completing the fastest 90% of all initial clearances (Secret and Top Secret) close to the average of 60 days as required by the 2004 Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act (IRTPA). This average for the fastest 90% can include cases that take up to about 180 days. The remaining 10% can take from six months to over a year.

As stated previously, DoD has the largest pool of jobs requiring a security clearance jobs in the Federal Government, and holds over 80% of all security clearances. Other agencies requiring clearances in order to maintain a position are: DHS, DoE, the Department of Justice, and the Central Intelligence Agency. DoE primarily issues “L,” and “Q” Access Authorizations, which are roughly equivalent to Secret and Top Secret clearances, respectively.

Which Agencies Process Security Clearances for the Government?

Prior to 2011, The Defense Industrial Security Clearance Office (DISCO) was part of the Defense Security Service (DSS), an agency of DoD. DISCO processed and adjudicated PCL and FCL for defense contractor personnel and defense contractor facilities. The Defense Office of Hearings and Appeals (DOHA) worked with DISCO and adjudicated the most problematic DISCO cases. Previously, DISCO/DOHA was one of nine CAFs within DoD.

The DoDCAF issues Personnel Clearances (PCL) for most DoD civilians, military personnel, and contractor personnel. Other departments that issue PCLs include the departments of Energy, State, Homeland Security, Transportation, Agriculture, Labor, Commerce, Treasury, Justice, Interior, Housing and Urban Development, Veterans Affairs, Health and Human Services, and Veterans Affairs. Many component agencies of these departments, as well as independent agencies (i.e. CIA, OPM, EPA, GAO, FCC, USITC, etc.), issue clearances. Clearance determinations are based on completed Personnel Security Investigations (PSI) using the “Adjudicative Guidelines for Determining Eligibility for Access to Classified Information.”

Types of Investigations, Requirements, and Reinvestigation Schedules

There are a few types of investigations required for a security clearance, to include: NACLC (National Agency Check with Local Agency Checks and Credit Check) which is a type of investigation required for a Secret or Confidential clearance for military and contractor personnel. It includes a credit bureau report and a review of records held by Federal agencies, but generally does not require an interview with an investigator. Another type of investigation is an ANACI (Access National Agency Check with Inquiries). An ANACI investigation is required for a Secret or Confidential clearance for new Federal employees. It is a combination of the National Agency Check with Inquiries (NACI) used for Federal employment suitability and the NACLC. It includes all the components of an NACLC, plus written inquires to past and present employers, schools, and references covering the past five years.

An SSBI (Single Scope Background Investigation) is by far the most difficult clearance to receive. An SSBI is a more detailed investigation than the NACLC and is required for a Top Secret clearance, for Sensitive Compartmented Information (SCI) access, and for designated Special Access Programs (SAP) at the Secret level. It includes an NACLC, an Enhanced Subject Interview (ESI), interviews of former spouses; interviews of character, employment, neighborhood, and educational references; reviews of residence, employment, and academic records. The investigation routinely covers no more than the past 10 years of a person’s life or a shorter period if the applicant is less than 28 years old.

An SSBI-PR (Single Scope Background Investigation—Periodic Reinvestigation) includes an NACLC, ESI, references interviews, and record reviews, covering at least the past five years. There is also a PPR (Phased Periodic Reinvestigation) which in 2005, was made a far less comprehensive and less expensive alternative to the SSBI-PR. The investigation includes an NACLC, ESI, and limited reference interviews and record reviews. PPRs may not be requested when certain questions on the clearance application contain responses indicating a possible security or suitability issue. People with security clearances must be routinely reinvestigated at set intervals based on the level of clearance they possess. A PR (Periodic Reinvestigation) is done to ensure that cleared personnel are still suitable for access to classified information. The type of reinvestigation and frequency required depend on the level of the clearance.

The Application Process

Once a person has determined they have the skills, qualifications, and clearance requirements to work in a job that requires a security clearance, there are steps which must be taken to achieve that goal. In order to be considered for a clearance, the applicant must first fill out the application form, Standard Form 86—SF86 (Questionnaire for National Security Positions), which requires personal identifying data, as well as information regarding citizenship, residence, education, and employment history; family and associates; and foreign connections/travel. Additionally, the SF86 asks for information about criminal records, illegal drug involvement, financial delinquencies, mental health counseling, alcohol-related incidents and counseling, military service, prior clearances and investigations, civil court actions, misuse computer systems, and subversive activities. The number of years of information required on the form varies from question to question—many require seven years, some require 10 years, and others are not limited to any period of time.

Once the application has been successfully filled out, a National Agency Check (NAC), police record checks, and credit check, will be run. When possible these are done centrally by an Investigation Service Provider (ISP), like OPM. At the point in the investigation, some police record checks must be done locally by field investigators. For investigations requiring other record checks, reference interviews, and/or a Subject Interview, tasking is sent from the ISP simultaneously to field investigators (either Federal agents or contract investigators) in all locations involved. If the investigation develops information that requires further action in another location, tasking is sent from the investigator that developed the information to another field office. Investigative reports are electronically submitted as the work is completed.

When all reports have been received at the ISP, the case is reviewed for completeness, and then forwarded to the appropriate CAF. People commonly use the terms “active,” “current,” and “expired” to mean:

  • Active—a clearance that has not been terminated.
  • Current—a terminated clearance that is still eligible for reinstatement.
  • Expired—a terminated clearance that is no longer eligible for reinstatement.

For More information see Security Clearance FAQs

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