The word “blackmail” conjures up cloak and dagger images better suited for Hollywood than the unexciting reality of most classified work. For security clearance holders, however, the threat of blackmail by foreign intelligence agencies or criminal organizations is real – and can arise in ways you might not expect. Here are some of the most common problem areas and what, if anything, you can do about them.

Child Conceived Outside of Wedlock.

This is a fairly common issue and comes in two varieties: (a) a child conceived outside of wedlock, but who biologically belongs to both parents, and (b) a child who biologically belongs to only one parent to the ignorance of the other. In the first scenario, usually religious and/or family considerations are the reason for the secrecy, but disclosure may not be detrimental to the clearance holder (something which you should make clear to your security clearance investigator). In the latter, the very foundation of a family might be at stake, along with other issues like failure to pay child support. This poses a major problem both for the clearance holder and the government, as clearance holders in this scenario may go to great lengths to keep the information secret.

If you fall into the latter category, the solutions are perhaps as obvious as they are unfortunate: forego the security clearance, admit the secret to your partner (thereby removing the potential for blackmail), or fight your probable initial clearance denial.

Sexual Orientation. 

Although federal guidelines are clear that the mere fact of a clearance holder’s sexual orientation is not a security issue, actively concealing that sexual orientation can be cause for a blackmail concern. Many clearance holders who fall into this category make the mistake of listing a live-in, same-sex partner as a “roommate” on the SF-86 (as opposed to correctly identifying the partner as a “cohabitant.”) Even if the clearance holder wishes to keep his or her sexual orientation a private matter, failing to appropriately identify the relationship during a background investigation immediately makes it a national security issue. The best way to address the matter is to list the partner as a cohabitant and then, if prompted by your investigator about blackmail potential, simply state that it is your personal preference to keep the matter private. Most investigators won’t push the issue further.


Like a child conceived out of wedlock, infidelity – especially that which is recent or ongoing – strikes at the heart of what many security clearance holders are most terrified of losing: their relationships and their family. Accordingly, the risk of blackmail is ever-present and something which can quickly tank a security clearance. Infidelity that does not result in the birth of a child (or involve cohabitation or a foreign national) is not reportable on the SF-86 per se, but in many cases it is discovered anyway: a guilty conscience admission by a worried clearance holder; information provided to investigators by a personal reference; or, in the most extreme cases, the existence of a second residence owned or rented by the clearance holder for romantic rendezvous.

The more extreme the lengths a clearance holder goes to facilitate and hide the infidelity, the greater the security issue. I advise clearance holders involved in such situations to begin taking steps to untangle themselves from any ongoing secondary relationship and, most importantly, to immediately cut any financial ties to that individual (e.g. cash payments, purchases of gifts, or expenditures on rent – or acceptance thereof) that show dependency. From a security standpoint, issues surrounding infidelity can sometimes be mitigated with the passage of time and a showing that no dependency (financial, emotional, or otherwise) remains for either party.

Undiscovered Criminal Conduct.

If you haven’t done so, check out my article on whether you can be prosecuted for undiscovered crimes reported on your SF-86 or to your background investigator. If this is even remotely a concern, promptly consult with an attorney to ensure that you are not inadvertently waiving your Fifth Amendment rights and subjecting yourself to criminal prosecution. In some cases, you may be safely outside the statute of limitations, such that reporting the crime could not trigger prosecution. (Warning: Don’t try to research a statute of limitations by yourself. One instance of criminal conduct can often be covered under a variety of overlapping statutes, each with differing statutes of limitation). Keep in mind, however, that the government’s concern about blackmail doesn’t have a statute of limitations. If the conduct – no matter how old – is of a nature that presently makes blackmail possible, be sure to talk with your attorney about any legal avenues for mitigation.


This article is intended as general information only and should not be construed as legal advice. Consult an attorney regarding your specific situation.  


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Sean M. Bigley retired from the practice of law in 2023, after a decade representing clients in the security clearance process. He was previously an investigator for the Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency (then-U.S. Office of Personnel Management) and served from 2020-2024 as a presidentially-appointed member of the National Security Education Board. For security clearance assistance, readers may wish to consider Attorney John Berry, who is available to advise and represent clients in all phases of the security clearance process, including pre-application counseling, denials, revocations, and appeals. Mr. Berry can be found at