You’re a security clearance applicant or holder and your friend is involved with, was arrested for, or was convicted of a serious criminal offense. For conversation’s sake, let’s call it drug trafficking.

If this sounds like an improbable hypothetical, you’d be surprised at how many times it has been posed to me over the years by security clearance applicants or holders with the following question attached: “is this going to impact my clearance?”

Like much in the law, the honest answer is that “it depends.”  There are very few bright-line rules in security clearance adjudications; instead, denial and revocation decisions are supposed to hinge on a careful assessment of the facts and circumstances of each individual case, as viewed within the context of a “whole person” analysis. With that in mind, below are a few elements of this not-so-crazy hypothetical that could impact how your case turns out.

Were You Involved in the Conduct?

At the risk of stating the obvious, if you were the lookout during drug deals or the getaway driver during robberies, you can probably kiss your security clearance (or chances of getting one anytime soon) goodbye. Loyalty to a friend is certainly admirable, but allowing a relationship to adversely impact your judgment, integrity or character is precisely the type of negative influence security officials would be on alert for in such a scenario. Alternatively, arguing that the relationship was irrelevant to your participation in the conduct – i.e. that you would have done it anyway – isn’t exactly going to help your cause.

Were You Aware of the Conduct?

Even if you weren’t involved in the conduct, being aware of it at, before, or in close proximity to the time it occurred – and continuing the relationship in spite of that awareness – will probably be enough to create a negative inference about your character. What won’t typically be held against you is a relationship with someone whose criminal past is firmly in their past. Depending upon the severity of the charges, establishing or maintaining a friendship with someone whose last brush with the law was many years prior, and who has since demonstrated sincere reform, isn’t likely to be a barrier to obtaining or retaining a clearance.

Since Becoming Aware of the Conduct, Have You Cut Ties?

If you weren’t aware that your buddy was tied up in some unsavory activities, cutting ties since being made reasonably aware will likely be a prerequisite for obtaining or retaining your clearance. That can be a difficult thing to do, especially if your friend is part of a larger group or is someone with whom you share ties beyond friendship (e.g. a cousin). Nonetheless, you should at least be prepared to demonstrate that you’ve taken steps to distance yourself from that person, such as avoiding or limiting places where you know that person to frequent.

Is There Anything About the Relationship That is Otherwise Problematic?

If the facts and circumstances of the relationship otherwise create questions about your judgment, integrity, character, or suitability for a particular job – or, if something about the relationship creates a risk of blackmail, coercion, or inducement to commit illegal activities – this will be a strike against you. Keep in mind, however, that friendships are not viewed in a vacuum. For example, maintaining a friendship for the purpose of helping someone reform might, under the right circumstances, just be sufficient to overcome concerns.


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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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