For cleared professionals—that tiny fraction of Americans to whom a special degree of confidence is entrusted in exchange for a convincing demonstration of a dependable, unquestionable, and singular allegiance to the United States—the Standard Form 86 (SF-86), Questionnaire for National Security Positions is the gateway to privilege.

EXPECTATIONS and the sf86

The expectation is simple. Tell the truth. Or don’t apply. Or lie and face a felony. Many government forms plant warnings about falsifying information at the end of the documents, near where you sign to verify that all the information is true. For the SF-86, the warnings are right up front. First, “Follow instructions completely . . . .” Next, “All questions on this form must be answered completely and truthfully. Then, “Penalties for inaccurate or false statements are discussed below.”

For the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), the consequences of lying or concealing information about your life on the SF-86 by commission or by omission are serious. Failure to properly fill out the SF86 is potentially threatening to the security of the United States.

PENALTIES for lying on the SF86

The SF-86 explains: “The U.S. Criminal Code (title 18, section 1001) provides that knowingly falsifying or concealing a material fact is a felony which may result in fines and/or up to five (5) years imprisonment.” Let’s unpack that a little. Remember, OPM is already suffering from a tremendous backlog in processing clearance requests. The last thing they need are people wasting government time and government money conducting background checks for clearance candidates who aren’t even serious enough about their clearance to simply tell the truth on a government form. More ominously, the last thing national security needs are people who are engaged in activities—nefarious, or otherwise—that they’d prefer the public not to know. That’s how foreign agents get leverage that can culminate in blackmail and espionage: “either do X for us, or we’ll tell Y about your Z.”

TITLE 18, SEC. 1001

What is the U.S. Criminal Code, Title 18, Sec. 1001? Lawyers learn all about the Criminal Code the first year of law school (I know, I’ve been there, in law school, for a little while). According to the Office of the Law Revision Counsel (OLRC) of the U.S. House of Representatives, “The United States Code is a consolidation and codification by subject matter of the general and permanent laws of the United States.” The OLRC serves under the authority of the Speaker of the House.  Section 1001, which falls under Chapter 47 of the Code, “Fraud and False Statements,” is particularly interesting and worth a quick look.

Section 1001 states that “whoever, in any matter within the jurisdiction of the executive, legislative, or judicial branch of the Government of the United States, knowingly and willfully—(1) falsifies, conceals, or covers up by any trick, scheme, or device a material fact; (2) makes any materially false, fictitious, or fraudulent statement or representation; or (3) makes or uses any false writing or document knowing the same to contain any materially false, fictitious, or fraudulent statement or entry; shall be fined under this title, imprisoned not more than 5 years . . . .”

All of which is to say, the SF-86 is serious business, very serious, no matter who you are and what you background is. So when it’s time to begin working through the SF-86 be serious, be honest, and be careful. A sloppy SF86 will stand between you and a clearance, and may cost you a job.

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Ed Ledford enjoys the most challenging, complex, and high stakes communications requirements. His portfolio includes everything from policy and strategy to poetry. A native of Asheville, N.C., and retired Army Aviator, Ed’s currently writing speeches in D.C. and working other writing projects from his office in Rockville, MD. He loves baseball and enjoys hiking, camping, and exploring anything. Follow Ed on Twitter @ECLedford.