When I was a kid, I thought the National Security Agency (NSA) knew which cereal I ate for breakfast. Thanks to Edward Snowden and Wikileaks, some have come to see America’s intelligence community (IC) as some all-seeing Eye of Sauron.

Fortunately, most Americans know the truth: The IC is made up of patriotic men and women who keep America safe and work within the confines of the law. Unfortunately, even some in the IC itself want to give a different impression. That’s what spurs this week’s question from the ClearanceJobs Blog: Do some intelligence agencies spy on their prospective employees?

The original poster wrote:

“I know this sounds childish, but I want to know. A family friend mentioned that the two agencies I’m processing with, NSA and CIA, are watching my every move. I’m not doing anything illegal or troubling that would jeopardize U.S. national security if I were to get a job, but it would be nice to know if they do this…

When I meant spying, I meant having people overseas keep tabs on you, or seeing who you are calling and texting, following you. I’ve been to Russia – let me remind you, and the last time I was there, I was invited to participate in a diplomatic program by the Russian government. They invited young experts to the country to discuss the relationship. So it wouldn’t be totally out of the blue for them to want to keep tabs on me. However, like I said, I’m not doing anything illegal. I was a student interested in becoming an expert on a particularly problemsome country as of late, so it was my duty to study that country, and when opportunities presented themselves, to go there. I’m not naive and I know the threat of being recruited in Russia, and I employ my own counter-intel whenever I travel to the former USSR. I’m just saying, it would be nice to know if I was being watched.

I recall the first time I was in Russia, I was there for a scholarship with the DOS. I remember I was on a date in Moscow and a guy in a trench coat walked passed me and in a perfectly American accent, said “hello,” and continued on his way. Dude looked just like inspector gadget. I can’t lie. I thought it was weird. Other similar things happened. So that is what prompted me to ask this question…”

Certainly this applicant is not the first person to wonder this, but as later posts clarify, they got the idea from a source that should know better: a former NSA employee himself. The security clearance application process is rigorous – especially for agencies like the CIA and NSA. But that doesn’t mean they’re stalking your every move. Here’s what a security clearance applicant can and can’t expect from the U.S. Government.

What the Government Does Do to Security Clearance Applicants

Currently, the government uses 13 adjudicative guidelines to judge if an applicant should receive a security clearance. Things like worrisome foreign ties, financial woes, and erratic or illegal behavior are all potential concerns. Here’s what the government does to uncover some of that information:

  • A financial records check: Financial reasons are consistently the #1 reason for security clearance denials and revocations. Negligent finances could make a clearance holder susceptible to blackmail or be evidence of poor judgment. When an applicant fills out the SF-86 form, they are giving the U.S. Government permission to look into their finances. Applicants can expect Uncle Sam to run a credit check or consult IRS records.
  • Criminal background check: Naturally a background investigation will inquire about any criminal incidents or convictions. However, this doesn’t need to be cause for concern. Adjudicators look at security clearance applicants using the “whole person” concept. Depending on the nature of the incident and when it was committed, a criminal record is not an automatic disqualifier for a security clearance.
  • Examines your foreign travel: The original poster is correct that background investigators will look at his travel and behavior – especially in a hostile nation like Russia. They will likely need to conduct interviews with neighbors or classmates in that country and do their due diligence to ensure that you were not involved with any crimes or bad actors while abroad. If you have significant foreign travel experience or close foreign contacts, be prepared for delays; this process takes time.  But unless you are suspected of espionage or another crime, American intelligence personnel would not be keeping tabs on you abroad.
  • Observes your behavior online: To be clear, they are not tracking every keystroke, but you can expect that they will be observing your behavior on social media. However, if you are a current government employee or active duty military, you can expect that they are observing your behavior on government devices or networks. Such can be said for any employer.
  • Verifies addresses, transcripts, and military service: Naturally the government wants to ensure that you are who you say you are and that you’ve given a truthful account of your life before applying for a security clearance.
  • Interview family, friends, and acquaintances: Again, this is to verify information listed on your SF-86 form.

What the Government Doesn’t Do to Security Clearance Applicants

  • Follow you as if you were an enemy agent: The government has neither the resources, cause, nor legal rights to be spying on American citizens. They are not tailing you on your way to the grocery store; that would be illegal.
  • Bugging your devices: They are also not tapping your personal phone, reading your texts, or monitoring your emails. But as stated before, if you are using government networks or devices, assume that your online activity is not private.
  • Examine health records: Some positions – like a combat skills instructor- have rigorous physical requirements, such as passing a military fitness test with a certain score. Many cleared positions may also require drug or health screenings. However, the U.S. Government is not rifling through your health records. Whether you have asthma, a sexually transmitted disease, or got a nose job when you were a teenager, it is not the government’s business. Unless your health issue somehow ended up in a police report (which is unlikely), the government neither knows nor cares.

Clearance applicants are wise to be on their best behavior as their application is being processed. Still, there’s a fine line between being vigilant and being paranoid. If you start to think the CIA is tailing you – or that the NSA cares what you eat for breakfast – you may be crossing that line.

 

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