Some may argue how you handle your finances provides security clearance investigators a window into the measure of trust which can be levied upon a person. Granted, not all bankruptcies come from financial irresponsibility, but come about following catastrophic events. Whether they’re outside of your control or not, financial issues continue to be the number one single issue causing the greatest number of clearance denials.

A review of the findings of the appeal adjudications for contractor personnel who operate under the auspicious of DOD Directive 5220.6, the general rules and adjudicative guidelines covering the clearance process, shows that many appeals are denied due to financial irresponsibility, committing a federal crime and using illegal drugs.

Let’s look at some examples drawn from the late November 2017 archive of Industrial Security Clearance decisions by the Defense Office of Hearings and Appeals (DOHA).

Don’t file tax returns? Don’t expect to get a clearance.

That is the message being delivered with the decision to affirm an adverse clearance decision for an applicant who appealed their denial of a security clearance. This applicant failed to file federal income tax returns from 2009-2012, and had their wages garnished by the IRS in 2011-12. The applicant did not help their cause when it was revealed they had numerous delinquent accounts, experienced a bankruptcy in 2011, and had a vehicle repossessed. The judge had rendered an unfavorable clearance decision, and the DOHA board upheld this decision because, “the evidence ‘does not completely mitigate the judgment issues raised by Applicant’s failure to comply with the tax laws.’”

Financial irresponsibility isn’t the only way to get your security clearance denied.

If your favorite number is 420, you might find yourself without a clearance.

This is what one applicant found out when his approximate 40-year usage of marijuana (legal in many states, yet illegal in federal law) is a disqualifier for a national security clearance. Interestingly, the individual had held a security clearance from 2005-2007. And, according to the hearing notes, is well known and respected in their field. But, they lied about their use of “illegal drugs” during the prior seven years. The individual then went on and used marijuana during the two-year period they held a clearance. When asked to explain, the excuse of “error in judgement” was insufficiently persuasive for the judge, who characterized the Applicant’s testimony at their hearing as “disjointed and rather confusing” and the applicant had “actively lied during his clearance interview.”

How many security violations are too many?

Apparently three, which is what a defense contractor’s employee learned. The individual has enjoyed the trust of the U.S. government since 1996. In 2014, she went to work for a defense contractor, and in 2016, was informed that her security clearance was not approved. She appealed and learned that the three security violations which had occurred in 2011, 2012 and 2013 respectively were the issue. These violations place a “’very heavy burden’ of persuasion as to mitigate.” Which she did not accomplish.

My parents are foreign nationals, I’m not!

An applicant for a security clearance was a native-born US citizen of ethnic Chinese parents, whose parents are both naturalized U.S. citizens. In the Statement of Reasons, the investigator included a DOJ notice detailing how the “People’s Republic of China (PRC) actively collects U.S. economic and proprietary information and therefore, the Applicant’s relationship with various family members and extended members in China raises suspicion of her.”  The review board found that actions of U.S. citizens, and their criminal wrongdoing, is of decreased relevance as to the individual’s suitability.

The Applicant provided detailed information about relatives living in China and with whom she and her family have annual contact. Furthermore, no member of her family has ever been affiliated with the PRC government or military. And finally, she has no financial interests in China. The panel found for the applicant, as she successfully mitigated her “Foreign Influence”, and determined that she continues to be eligible for access to classified information.

The takeaways

If you are continually committing an illegal act (as defined by federal law) expect that you will be found unsuitable for access to classified information. Similarly, if you or your family were immigrants, your family tree in the native land will be of interest. The more you know about what your extended family is engaged in (work and community) the easier you will make it for the investigators. Being foreign born or having parents who are foreign born are not in and of themselves disqualifiers. In all of the adjudicative criteria, transparency and honesty are the keys to mitigating almost every issue.

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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