There’s an episode of Seinfeld where Jerry tries to “beat” a polygraph test. Embarrassed to admit to his cop girlfriend that he is a fan of the soap opera Melrose Place, he lies and says he’s never seen it. Seeing through his ruse, she challenges him to take the poly. In order to “beat the machine,” he turns to “one of the most deceitful, duplicitous, deceptive minds” of his time: George Costanza. As Jerry walks out of the coffee shop to take the test, George encourages him, “Jerry, just remember: it’s not a lie if you believe it.”

Now, this is the absolute worst advice for security clearance polygraph exam. I can’t stress that enough. No one ever got ahead in life by taking advice from George Costanza. That said, it touches on an interesting phenomenon: the accidental lie.

Your Security Clearance and The “Accidental Lie”

A user wrote on the ClearanceJobs Blog this week about concerns over past alcohol use and failing to report them accurately. As many subsequent comments noted, this hardly makes the original poster exceptional; plenty of clearance holders underestimate their drinking. However, the question is more complicated than that. The original poster wrote:

I’m currently being investigated for a DOE Q clearance. I don’t think I’ll get it. Here’s why:

 

For the past 10 years, I had a serious drinking problem. I’d get hammered about once a week and not tell anyone about it. I didn’t get a DUI or anything, but it was subtly messing up my life. One of the symptoms of it was that, since I was drinking alone and disposing of the evidence the second I was done, I didn’t realize how much I was drinking and somehow thought I was basically getting drunk 3 times a year. Fast forward a bit. Things got bad, the drinking got way worse, I went to treatment, and am now a year and change sober.

None of that would disqualify me, I think (no legal troubles, sought treatment voluntarily, treatment worked). What is going to disqualify me, I believe, is that during the drinking period, I was investigated for and got a DOE L. During the process, they asked me about my drinking, and I gave them the 3 times a year version, which I believed at the time, but was in no way accurate. The investigation happened in 2014-2015, if time frame somehow matters to this.

I have been perfectly honest about all of this on the forms for the new clearance, explaining that I lied before, but also that it was unintentional and caused by a drinking problem I have since fixed. However, I think they’re still going to go “Well, you lied to us, and your excuse seems to be that you’re an alcoholic” and deny the clearance. Am I right?

Part of what concerns adjudicators about a drinking problem is that it could make you an unreliable narrator or cloud your judgment. You could more easily mishandle classified information or make bad choices about sharing information. Or worse – unlike this applicant – your drinking could cause you to make other catastrophic decisions with your personal or financial life.

In general, ignorance of rule-breaking is no excuse for rule-breaking when it comes to your clearance investigation. If there are problems in your credit report or your criminal record, “not knowing” or “forgetting” about them is no excuse; it’s your job to know.

But what if – as in this case – the thing you’re unintentionally lying about has genuinely screwed up your perception of reality? The applicant is simply confirming what adjudicators know: people make poor decisions when they’re dependent on alcohol – even if it’s by accident.

“I had a problem. Here’s what I’m doing to fix it.”

When it comes to alcohol, debt, overspending, infidelity, and a host of other common security clearance concerns, there are really only two steps you can take if you hope to get or retain a clearance: be honest about your problem and make clear, documented steps to fix it.

After accidentally underestimating alcohol abuse in 2014-2015, the applicant has now been forthright about his problem, can show his voluntary participation in rehab, has since stopped drinking, and does not appear to have any other problems that have arisen as a result of the alcoholism. In general, this is what an adjudicator is looking to see. No one applying for a clearance is perfect – but does someone show a pattern of reckless behavior, bad judgment or illegal activity without taking clear steps to fix it? That’s where real problems arise.

Remember, adjudicators judge security clearance applicants based on the “whole person concept.” Generally, no one, single factor disqualifies a person from a clearance. One bad decision may easily be outweighed by several good ones. Sometimes it isn’t. But in this case, the applicant is doing everything they can to mitigate the circumstances.

 

Much about the clearance process resembles the Pirate’s Code: “more what you’d call guidelines than actual rules.” This case-by-case system is meant to consider the whole person, increase process security, and allow the lowest-risk/highest-need candidates to complete the process. However, it also creates a  lot of questions for applicants. For this reason, ClearanceJobs maintains ClearanceJobsBlog.com – a forum where clearance seekers can ask the cleared community for advice on their specific security concerns. Ask CJ explores questions posed  on the ClearanceJobs Blog forum

If you have a tough security clearance question, you can post your questions or concerns on ClearanceJobsBlog.com.

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Caroline D'Agati is an Editor for ClearanceJobs based in Washington, D.C. Her background is in public policy, non-profit fundraising, and - oddly enough - park rangering. Though she once dreamed of serving America secretly in the CIA, she's grateful she's gotten to serve America publicly - both through the National Park Service and right here at ClearanceJobs. If you have tips or are interested in contributing to our site, you can email her at caroline.d'agati@clearancejobs.com