A lot of misconceptions about the security clearance process circulate throughout the years, in some instances nearly rising to urban myth status. All too often, these misunderstandings relate to an applicant’s interaction with an investigator, almost all of which takes place during the personal interview.

A number of resources exist throughout this site to help you prepare for the personal interview, so I won’t rehash that subject matter in depth. Instead, I can offer a brief primer on what you should and should not expect from your investigator(s).

Your investigator should not:

  • Pretend he or she is a homicide detective. The personal interview is not a jailhouse interrogation. It is a consensual, amicable, fact-finding discussion between investigator and applicant.
  • Schedule appointments solely around his or her schedule. Ideally, the investigator should meet at a mutually beneficial time, and at the appropriate location (either a government space or an employer site).
  • Ask questions that alter from the language on the SF-86 questionnaire. While the interview should have a conversational tone, your investigator should read the questions on the SF-86 verbatim. An investigator who provides his or her own interpretation of the questions encroaches into risky territory, especially if an applicant misunderstands a question and the response substantially affects the final adjudication.
  • Volunteer information to the applicant or sources about information provided by other sources over the course of an investigation, particularly if this information is adverse. The Privacy Act of 1974 governs this area.
  • Indicate whether any information disclosed by the applicant will negatively impact the final adjudication. The adjudicative process is entirely separate from the field work conducted by investigators, which is an objective process.
  • Meet the applicant or sources in public places where people can overhear sensitive dialogue.
  • Update you with the status of your investigation. Once an applicant completes the personal interview, questions regarded to the status of an investigation should be directed to OPM or the appropriate security official overseeing the process.
  • Tell the applicant how long the adjudicative process will take. Investigations are a complex, thorough undertaking, and their duration is unique to the facts in each every case.
  • Discuss or elicit classified information at any point during the investigation.

Your investigator should:

  • Display his credentials (badge) at the outset of any interview.
  • Upon request, provide information about how an applicant can request a copy of his or her background investigation. This information is also easily accessible on the OPM web site.
  • Clarify any questions that the applicant may not understand over the course of the interview, and provide the applicant a chance to clarify or expand upon any information before the close of the interview.
  • As a corollary to the previous point, fully understand the questions he or she is asking.
  • Be cordial, professional, and accessible throughout the investigative process. Both the applicant and the investigator share a common goal of completing the investigation efficiently and effectively. Contentiousness frustrates these ideals.
  • Provide a list of disclaimers at the start of the interview, which may include the penalties for falsifying information, the purpose of the interview, and an oath or affirmation.
  • Conduct interviews in person, whenever feasible. This reflects upon the credibility of both the investigator and the interviewee or record provider. Considering the importance of the subject matter, both parties should know exactly who they are speaking with.
  • When scheduling the personal interview, provide the applicant with a reasonable estimation of how long the personal interview will last. This is not an exact science, but an experienced investigator who thoroughly researches the SF-86 beforehand should have a feel for the duration of the interview.
  • Inform the applicant of any materials, items, or documents the applicant needs to bring to the personal interview (ID: always; a personal copy of the SF-86: usually a good idea to ensure there are no discrepancies with the investigator’s copy).
  • Promptly follow up with an applicant if important information was unavailable at the time of the personal interview. Failure to do so impacts the efficiency of the investigation and the reliability of the final adjudication.

If an applicant or source ever has any concerns about the conduct of an investigator, the OPM website provides a wealth of contact numbers, to include an investigator verification line.

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Andrew Levine is a former background investigator. Andrew worked on the U.S. Office of Personnel Management contract from March of 2007 through August of 2014, and conducted high-volume field work in Washington, D.C., area. During his career, Andrew trained incoming investigators and assisted in developing training curriculum for experienced investigators. A New York native, Andrew is currently pursuing a law degree at the University of the District of Columbia.
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