Here’s a scenario I see play out all too often. Joe Security Clearance-holder has a position that requires a SECRET security clearance or a favorable Public Trust adjudication. He’s held the job for, say, a decade, and it pays the bills nicely. It also comes with decent benefits, a 401(k)-retirement plan, and 3 weeks a year of paid vacation. Joe will never get rich from his job, but he’ll be comfortably ensconced in the upper middle class for as long as he holds the position.

One day, Joe’s employer decides that the company is going to undertake a new, lucrative government contract and Joe is just the man they want working on the project. The only hitch is that now Joe will require a TOP SECRET security clearance. Joe submits a new SF-86 form and he’s off to the races.

Unfortunately, Joe’s full field background investigation uncovers, through in-person interviews with references, what his largely automated prior background investigation did not: Joe abused prescription painkillers for some time, which he failed to report on his prior or current SF-86. Now Joe’s being denied the Top-Secret security clearance – and watching everything he worked so hard for begin to unravel.

What the Government Learns Might Hurt You

When something like this happens, reactions vary based on personality. Some of our clients become angry and indignant (“it was just one little lie”), while others throw themselves at the mercy of the government. Whatever the reaction, one commonality is the desire to seek out a silver lining. In this context, the most common question I hear is:

“If I’m denied the TOP SECRET clearance, can’t I at least maintain my SECRET clearance or Public Trust determination? I can continue to work with that.”

I always regret having to explain that the National Adjudicative Guidelines for security clearances make no distinction between the levels of clearance in their application to facts. The only element that differs between the levels of clearance is the intensity of the background investigation.  Once the government has unfavorable information from a higher-level clearance, the corresponding denial or revocation of clearance wipes out all lower level clearances and other favorable adjudications at the same agency. The derogatory information is then also typically referred to any other agencies where the applicant holds a clearance. The third-party agency takes their own adjudicative action as it sees fit.

This dynamic should give at least brief pause to any security clearance holder applying for a higher-level clearance. Of course, the example I provided is predicated on intentional falsification, and a security clearance applicant who completes his or her SF-86 honestly – as required by law – won’t have to worry about this. But there are plenty of other scenarios where a more comprehensive and intensive background investigation can dig-up unfavorable details that didn’t come out during a prior, largely computer-based check. When that happens, a well-meaning attempt at career advancement might wind-up being an ill-conceived career implosion.

In the final analysis, I often advise clients not to let needless fear or unfounded worries dissuade them from taking a chance on a great opportunity. On the other hand, self-sabotage is the worst kind because it is entirely preventable. When in doubt, talk with a qualified security clearance attorney before submitting an SF-86 to determine if what you’re about to do is a major mistake.


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

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Sean M. Bigley retired from the practice of law in 2023, after a decade representing clients in the security clearance process. He was previously an investigator for the Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency (then-U.S. Office of Personnel Management) and served from 2020-2024 as a presidentially-appointed member of the National Security Education Board. For security clearance assistance, readers may wish to consider Attorney John Berry, who is available to advise and represent clients in all phases of the security clearance process, including pre-application counseling, denials, revocations, and appeals. Mr. Berry can be found at