State Department Suitability Criteria Pose Problems for Those with Past Indiscretions

Security Clearance

U.S. Embassy in Cuba, State Department photo

Across the government, applicants for cleared employment are evaluated under two distinct sets of criteria once an initial job offer has been extended: suitability and security (see 5 C.F.R. 731.202 et seq. and Security Executive Agent Directive 4, respectively).

The dual-track system is a relic of a bygone era, creating confusion and duplicity of work where none need exist. For example, a suitability determination is designed to ascertain whether a favorable hiring decision does damage to the integrity and/or efficiency of the federal service, whereas a favorable security clearance determination deems the individual fit for access to classified information. If that sounds like a lot of overlap, just take a look at the evaluation criteria for each assessment category. The basic frameworks largely mirror each other, except that the security clearance criteria are broader and include a few additional categories of concerns like foreign influence, foreign preference, and mental health. An applicant with a favorably adjudicated security clearance has a very high chance of clearing suitability.

That’s not necessarily the case at the State Department or its sister agency, USAID.

State and USAID – unlike every other agency in the government of which I’m aware – utilize a different set of suitability criteria for applicants to the foreign service, as outlined in their “Foreign Affairs Manual” (FAM) at 3 FAM 4139 et seq.

Foreign Service Places High Regard on Conduct

Presumably, the FAM is a reflection of the unique trust afforded members of the foreign service in representing our country abroad and the increased likelihood that they could be placed in potentially compromising situations either as a result of cultural differences or the designs of a hostile foreign government. Unlike the suitability criteria found in the Code of Federal Regulations, the FAM’s suitability criteria include categories more traditionally thought of as security concerns: sexual misconduct, financial responsibility, and, as the FAM calls it, “notoriously disgraceful conduct” (i.e. issues that could present a blackmail concern).

I’ve encountered accusations of “notoriously disgraceful conduct” on a number of occasions in my law practice – usually pertaining to the solicitation of prostitutes or similar adult-themed activities – and there is just something about that language that makes it an unusually personal attack. The problem is that it is also a difficult obstacle to overcome. If you can’t keep it in your pants stateside, why should anyone assume you’ll do so overseas where attitudes toward sexual activity are generally more relaxed?

With that being said, those who aspire to a career in the foreign service should not necessarily let past indiscretions dissuade them from pursuing their dreams. But a dose of reality may be due in extreme situations: the FAM’s suitability standards are high for a reason, and they aren’t particularly forgiving.

If you are thinking about applying to the foreign service, it may be worth the due diligence of actually reading the criteria against which you will be evaluated before wasting time and energy on a lost cause.

This article is intended as general information only and should not be construed as legal advice. Consult an attorney regarding your specific situation.

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