Many years ago, my grandfather sold encyclopedia sets for a living. If you’re old enough to remember them, you also recall a world without the internet – a world where those encyclopedias or the local library provided answers to life’s most perplexing questions.

The days of the encyclopedia were numbered with the advent of search engines like Google. And while most people would agree that the internet has vastly improved the human condition, it also created a perhaps unforeseen problem: false information masquerading as legitimately sourced.  What the encyclopedia lacked in user-friendliness, portability, and comprehensiveness, it did at least have in authority. The internet, on the other hand, is filled with vast quantities of information from apparently credible sources, much of it contradictory and false. Like the “fake news” phenomenon, the challenge for the user is making sense of it all.

News and opinions about security clearance issues aren’t immune from this problem. Scour the internet and one will find all manner of information doled out by the ill-informed or those simply seeking to make a quick buck. Here are a few examples that prove the old adage “don’t believe what you read on the internet.”

“Don’t Ever Seek Mental Health Treatment or Counseling”

As I’ve written previously, one of the longstanding myths about security clearances is that listing mental health treatment or counseling on one’s SF-86 guarantees a clearance denial or revocation. It doesn’t. In fact, it doesn’t even usually create a hiccup.

The truth is that statistically only a tiny fraction of people who seek mental health treatment or counseling ever experience security clearance problems. Those are extreme cases involving diagnoses like bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and suicidal ideation or attempts – and even some of those cases can be mitigated if the patient demonstrates effective management of the condition with medication and compliance with treatment.

Ironically, it is the individual who needs treatment but fails to seek it who may run into more serious security clearance problems. After all, security clearances are all about managing risk – and an individual living in denial and with an untreated condition is unpredictable. Ignore the ill-informed comments in certain online forums and get mental health treatment or counseling if you need it.

“The Government Doesn’t Care About That”

If a question on the SF-86 explicitly asks, for example, if you’ve consumed illegal drugs – including marijuana – during the last seven years, answering “no” on the basis that the marijuana wasn’t illegal where you consumed it is a creative interpretation that might be a great way to legally thread the needle in other contexts. The problem is simply this: marijuana is illegal everywhere in the United States under federal law and federal law trumps state law. Sorry to burst any bubbles out there, but smoking weed in Colorado doesn’t get one off the hook.

Marijuana use is obviously one of many examples of potential issue areas covered during the security clearance background investigation process. But the point is that any interpretation of a question is only as good as the interpreter. Don’t rely on armchair experts in internet discussion boards to opine about what the government considers material to a question – especially when the penalty for false statements (albeit rarely used) can be prosecution.

“You Can ‘Beat’ the Polygraph by _______”

In the darker and seedier corners of the internet exists a handful of self-proclaimed polygraph wizards hawking advice and guidance – for a price – on how to ‘beat’ a polygraph machine. To be clear, this author is no fan of the polygraph; I’ve seen too many careers destroyed by false statements obtained through coercion and junk science that doesn’t hold up in court. Nonetheless, the polygraph remains a required part of the security clearance process for many government employees and contractors, and any evidence that an examinee is employing counter-measures or studied how to beat the machine will be viewed with immediate suspicion.

Understand that the polygraph is NOT a “lie detector,” its merely a machine that registers physiological responses to questions that are then interpreted by a human. There are a variety of reasons why an individual might have a certain physiological reaction to a question – hence why polygraph technical calls, standing alone, cannot be used to deny or revoke a security clearance. But there is generally only one reason why someone researches or seeks out advice on how to beat the polygraph: they have something to hide. Which do you think looks worse to security officials?

“Just One Puff Won’t Matter”

President Clinton might have been able to get away with the “I didn’t inhale” defense, but constitutional officials (the President, Vice President, and Members of Congress) don’t need a security clearance. If you’re reading this article, presumably you do.

Just one puff of marijuana still counts as marijuana use, and the “not inhaling” defense will be viewed as splitting hairs – even if true. Advice to the contrary on the internet is bad advice that will get a clearance holder caught operating under it in more trouble than one who simply disclosed the past use honestly. Like much else on the internet, the advice is only as good as its source. Recklessly relying on sources of advice who aren’t qualified to give it offers one no protection against charges of intentional dishonesty.


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