A security clearance is a security clearance until it isn’t the right security clearance. Welcome to the world of reciprocity, collaboration and kumbaya within the Defense and Intelligence worlds of the United States.

In late-November 2018 the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) issued Security Executive Agent Directive 7 (SEAD-7) whose purpose is to “establish requirements for reciprocal acceptance of background investigations and national security adjudications” between executive branch agencies. The intent, as indicated above, is to allow an individual from one organization/agency to attend to classified work involving another organization/agency and to provide assurances that the individual has undergone the same level of scrutiny as everyone else in the room. It looks great on paper.

Does reciprocity work?

It does, until it doesn’t.

The SEAD-7 directive provides a plethora of exceptions for the receiving agency to find fault and deny access. These include:

  1. New information of national security adjudicative relevance has been reported, developed, or known to agency officials since the last investigation that indicates the individual may no longer satisfy adjudicative requirements.
  2. The most recent background investigation is more than seven years old unless otherwise directed by the Security Executive Agent. While not required, agencies may accept background investigations more than seven years old on a case-by-case basis. Upon accepting an investigation more than seven years old, the accepting agency shall immediately initiate a reinvestigation.
  3. The most recent national security eligibility adjudication was recorded with an exception, as defined in Security Executive Agent Directive (SEAD) 4, National Security Adjudicative Guidelines. Agencies may accept national security eligibility adjudications recorded with an exception based on their own risk assessment.
  4. A Bond Amendment disqualifier applies as identified in SEAD 4 and the covered individual requires access to sensitive compartmented information, special access programs, or restricted data.
  5. The Security Executive Agent has specifically approved additional national security investigative or adjudicative requirements that are necessary to address significant needs unique to the agency involved, to protect national security, or to satisfy a requirement imposed by law.
  6. The covered individual’s national security eligibility was granted on a temporary (interim), limited, or one-time basis.
  7. The covered individual’s national security eligibility is currently denied, revoked, or suspended. Absent the presence of mitigating factors or other reasons, covered individuals found to be ineligible for access to classified information or to hold a sensitive position should remain ineligible for national security duty for a minimum of one year from the date of a denial or revocation.

The above exceptions include the use of the polygraph and compartmentation and provides guidance on finding a way through the reciprocity conundrum.

The polygraph is often used when compartmentation is required, and an updated polygraph is not an unusual requirement prior to reading an individual into a compartmented program. Compartmentation is designed to ensure that only those with a need to know and who are among the “most trustworthy” of individuals within a given organization or others within the classified world are permitted access. Few will argue that compartmentation is important for those truly sensitive secrets.

Facility Security Officers and their staffs are looking at this new directive and smiling, as all who have had to work between organizations and have their “tickets” sent over from one to another realize that while the reciprocity gets one into the door, it may not be enough to allow the individual access to the classified engagement.

Bottom line, if there is a need to know and the greater good of the nation is at stake, don’t be shy about pushing the requirement for reciprocity up the food chain within the organization which is being hesitant about recognizing the national security clearance of a given employee. The SEAD-7 directive makes clear, “Only the Security Executive Agent may disallow the reciprocal recognition of a background investigation and national security eligibility adjudication when determined necessary for national security purposes and none of the exceptions [provided above] apply.”

Ben Franklin is famously quoted “Three can keep a secret, if two of them are dead.” It’s an extreme example of the rationale on how to keep information secret. The message is clear, the greater the number of individuals who know a given secret, the more likely the risk of disclosure – intentional or unintentional.

Reciprocity is important. Checking all the security boxes is also important. It is only the nation’s security at risk.

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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).