Every one of us who has had the pleasure of filling out the SF-86 national security questionnaire has also had the pleasure of sitting for our security clearance interview, where the content of the SF-86 is discussed. For some, the interview feels more like a meet and greet with the content of the SF-86 being reviewed in what seems like a matter of minutes.

Many of us are insanely jealous of those individuals for either keeping meticulous records of their life, or living the life of The Beaver. Though it may feel like the security clearance interview is tantamount to the Spanish inquisition, as the investigator walks you through the past ten years of foreign travel, discusses all your distant relatives who live in foreign countries, has you explain why you did contract work for a company located abroad (Canada),  relax, it is their job is to make sure the SF-86 is accurate. And yes, sometimes the interviews can spread across multiple appointments  depending upon how complex your life has been and the availability of your supporting documents.

How do you prepare?

John Berry, a private attorney with Berry & Berry, recommends in 8 Tips for the Security Clearance Process that you begin by contacting an attorney for legal advice. Berry’s logic is, “An individual has the best chance of resolving security concerns when he/she recognizes a potential security concern and seeks advice early. Doing so at the beginning of the clearance process usually maximizes an individual’s ability to mitigate the security concerns.” No argument with Berry’s logic. If you know that you have a security concern which will be an item of concern, addressing this head-on, and not waiting post adjudication to appeal may indeed be a viable avenue to follow.

Do I need an attorney?

You are permitted to have representation at the security clearance interview. Unless your case is incredibly complex, it is most likely not worth the cost. But if you retain an attorney or security clearance consultant to assist you in your clearance application, it is to your benefit to also ask for their feedback on what they expect from your interview.

Be completely honest. Once you sign your SF-86, you are attesting that the content of that 125+ page document has been truthfully compiled. Human error happens, this is one of the main purposes of the security clearance interview, to correct any errors and ensure that the baseline data is “true” as attested to by the individual applying for a security clearance.

Other tips fall into the common-sense category: the advice you’d expect to receive for preparing for a job interview is the same kind of advice you should heed during your security clearance interview.

Security clearance interview advice

We reviewed our own advice from 2010, to see if over the course of the past seven years if this advice still holds water, and we are pleased to say, it sure does.

You should:

  • Bring a government-issued photo ID, such as a driver’s license or military ID card.
  • Bring a personal address book or anything that contains contact information on your associates and family members.
  • Bring a copy of your SF86.
  • If your case involves some security issues, bring any relevant documents with you to the interview, such as birth/citizenship certificates, passports, financial documents, court records, etc.

What is the investigator looking for during the interview?

  • nature, extent, and seriousness of the conduct;
  • circumstances surrounding the conduct, to include knowledgeable participation;
  • frequency and recency of the conduct;
  • individual’s age and maturity at the time of the conduct;
  • extent to which participation is voluntary;
  • presence or absence of rehabilitation and other permanent behavioral changes;
  • motivation for the conduct;
  • potential for pressure, coercion, exploitation, or duress; and
  • likelihood of continuation or recurrence.

Yes, the interview is intrusive. And no, you can’t skip it. You must attend. And yes, if you lie on your SF-86, and lie again to investigators trying to clarify, there is a good chance you will find yourself having a different discussion with the Department of Justice, as was the case with a senior congressional staffer who thought that path was the one he wished to follow.

We strongly recommend that you plan for your security clearance interview as if your livelihood depends upon the result, because it does. Preparedness and completeness are the two keywords. If you want an attorney or paid advisor present to help explain some of the more complex situations in your life, then do so.

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Christopher Burgess (@burgessct) is an author and speaker on the topic of security strategy. Christopher, served 30+ years within the Central Intelligence Agency. He lived and worked in South Asia, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Central Europe, and Latin America. Upon his retirement, the CIA awarded him the Career Distinguished Intelligence Medal, the highest level of career recognition. Christopher co-authored the book, “Secrets Stolen, Fortunes Lost, Preventing Intellectual Property Theft and Economic Espionage in the 21st Century” (Syngress, March 2008). He is the founder of securelytravel.com