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Security Clearance Attorney Sean M. Bigley represents clients worldwide in security clearance denials and revocations. He is a former investigator for the U.S. Office of Personnel Management. For more information, please visit www.bigleylaw.com.
This article is Part I in a three-part series on security clearance holders and alcohol abuse.
If you hold a security clearance and have previously incurred a DUI, a public intoxication arrest, or a diagnosis of alcohol abuse disorder, anticipate some pointed questions from the government regarding your current level and frequency of alcohol consumption.
How much and how often you drink is relevant to a security determination for perhaps obvious reasons. What may not be obvious is how you should answer the question from security officials that inevitably follows:
“When was the last time you were intoxicated?”
I’ve seen many well-meaning people trip themselves up in answering this question over confusion about how to define ‘intoxication.’ The question invites subjective answers, and therefore should be followed-up by security officials with another question about how the clearance holder defines ‘intoxication.’ In practice, that follow-up question is rarely asked.
The result is that clearance holders often provide as an answer the last time they consumed enough alcohol to make them unsafe to drive. Perhaps as a result of extensive DUI education efforts, this is the context in which many laypersons reflexively think of the term.
But for many adults, the legal threshold for driving while intoxicated is only a couple drinks. And while that may be enough to dangerously slow reaction time, it’s certainly not evidence of an alcohol abuse disorder, nor would it likely be enough to result in unintentionally spilling national security secrets. When there is a disconnect between how you define intoxication and how security officials define it, frequently the tendency is for security officials to make unfavorable assumptions. In other words, the perception is raised that the clearance-holder is drinking more often and more heavily than in reality.
Intoxication and Impairment
I generally advise my clients that there is a significant distinction between what constitutes intoxication for operating a vehicle, a boat, or heavy machinery, and what constitutes intoxication for impairment of memory, judgment, and self-control. Security clearance adjudications are concerned primarily with the latter – unless, of course, you are actually driving or operating heavy machinery while intoxicated, which indicates a disregard for the law. Different states have different definitions of ‘intoxication’ for purposes besides driving, but the common theme is that the individual is no longer in possession of his or her normal faculties. For example, here in California a charge of public intoxication requires that the defendant was unable to care for himself or was a danger to himself or others. That is a fairly high bar that most casual drinkers won’t meet.
To be clear, I’m not advising security clearance holders to lie or to split hairs in answering lawful questions from security officials. But telling the government you were last ‘intoxicated’ the night before your security interview – when you had two glasses of wine with dinner and your spouse prudently drove you home – is both inaccurate and inviting an ethically avoidable security clearance revocation. Understanding what actually constitutes legal ‘intoxication’ is thus important for anyone with a history of alcohol-related concerns.
This article is intended as general information only and should not be construed as legal advice. Consult an attorney regarding your specific situation.