Earlier this year, the National Background Investigations Bureau (NBIB) – the current investigative service provider for roughly 90% of the government’s security clearance workload – divulged some stunning statistics.

According to the agency, the fastest 90%of Top Secret clearances took 534 days to process in 2018, while the fastest 90% of Secret clearances took 221 days. The backlog impacts in excess of 710,000 individuals.

What are the consequences of the security clearance backlog?

Such extensive delays pose a major problem, particularly for cleared contractors like those in the defense and aerospace industries. As recent congressional hearings indicated, companies are having difficulty recruiting and retaining talent to fill cleared positions, resulting in work slowdowns, inability to meet contract deliverables, and a frantic rush to attract appropriately cleared job applicants – all of which impacts these employers’ profitability. To a significant extent, the backlog also impacts national security readiness; an already depleted defense industrial base would be ill-prepared to quickly ramp up production in the event of an armed conflict.

For those who actively hold a clearance and don’t have a reinvestigation on the horizon for at least several years, the backlogs may appear to be a career blessing that increase both job security and the salary one can command. But for first-time applicants, the delays are a nightmare that make the ability to obtain an interim security clearance an effective pre-requisite for employment. Few employers have the patience or financial resources to hire an applicant then keep him or her benched for two years until a final clearance can be favorably adjudicated.

The increased emphasis on interim clearances means that applicants need to understand what an interim clearance is and how decisions on interim clearances are made. An interim clearance is essentially a risk management decision made by personnel security officials after reviewing the applicant’s SF-86 form and conducting preliminary inquiry checks in key databases to ascertain if the person is a wanted fugitive or a terrorist.

Which is Harder to Get: A REgular or interim security clearance?

On one hand, this may not seem like a particularly high threshold to clear. On the other hand, interim security clearances are often denied based upon common areas of adjudicative concern, like finances, drug use, alcohol problems, and foreign contacts – all areas that an applicant self-reports information about on the SF-86.

Ultimately, many of those who are denied an interim clearance are actually granted the final clearance, demonstrating that the interim may have been decided differently had the adjudicator been provided the full perspective of context and other mitigating information laid out in a final report of investigation.

The lesson here for applicants attempting to obtain an interim security clearance is thus simply this: don’t underestimate the value of the comments sections on the SF-86 form as a place to provide such mitigation.

For example, an applicant who lists a DUI arrest on the SF-86 form but who no longer consumes alcohol should take the opportunity to clearly provide that information. Other mitigating details that would be helpful to an adjudicator in this hypothetical situation are: the applicant’s blood alcohol content at time of arrest (if just over the legal limit); that the applicant has completed all terms of his or her court sentence; that the applicant completed an alcohol education course or some form of counseling; and, what the applicant was doing prior to the DUI arrest, if that helps explain reasonable context.

With the severity of delays right now, applicants are wise not to treat their SF-86 as just another hiring step to rush through. A bit of thoughtfulness and foresight can go a long way toward satisfying potential concerns and obtaining a valuable interim clearance.



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 https://www.berrylegal.com/.