Applying for a security clearance can be a little unnerving. Some concerns – like serious drug use or foreign entanglements – are justified; they can cause serious barriers to ever getting a security clearance. Others concerns are not as necessary. Such a question recently arose on the ClearanceJobs Blog regarding an applicant and the use of a fake ID:

“When I was 20 (winter 2016), I purchased a fake ID to use for entering bars. I used it twice, once successfully, approx. Feb 2017, and then never used it again as I regretted the decision and lost interest. Unfortunately, I was an idiot who used their picture and real name on the ID, which was scannable.

I’m a bit concerned the address listed on the ID will come up during the background investigation since it was scannable. As such, I figured it may be better to list the choice on my SF-86 so that it doesn’t look like I’m trying to hide it. However, because I wasn’t charged with any citations (a misdemeanor in the state I was living in at the time), I’m not sure where I should list it on e-QIP. I’m considering including it in the extra comments section, but am unsure. My biggest concern is that not disclosing the purchase will be considered intentional concealing, but I’m also not sure if I’m just overthinking things. Thoughts?”

The applicant is aware that our actions often leave a trail of breadcrumbs – and security clearance investigators are in the business of finding those breadcrumbs. He is reasonably concerned that by not disclosing this, he will appear to be concealing it. But his person may be a victim of his own conscience – a common problem known as “guilt grabbing.” But before we unpack that, let’s address the question at hand.

Should I report my fake ID on my SF-86?

As is often discussed on ClearanceJobs, dishonesty is a frequent cause of security clearance denial or revocation. When the SF-86, background investigator, or polygraph examiner asks you a question, you must ask that specific question thoroughly and honestly. Since this applicant asks specifically about listing his fake ID on the SF-86, it’s worth looking at what the form actually asks. The questions in Section 22.1: Police Record are as follows:

  • “In the last seven (7) years have you been issued a summons, citation, or ticket to appear in court in a criminal proceeding against you? (Do not check if all the citations involved traffic infractions where the fine was less than $300 and did not include alcohol or drugs)
  • In the last seven (7) years have you been arrested by any police officer, sheriff, marshal or any other type of law enforcement official?
  • In the last seven (7) years have you been charged with, convicted of, or sentenced for a crime in any court? (Include all qualifying charges, convictions or sentences in any Federal, state, local, military, or non-U.S. court, even if previously listed on this form).
  • In the last seven (7) years have you been or are you currently on probation or parole?Are you currently on trial or awaiting a trial on criminal charges?”

Further along, these are the questions in Section 22.2:

  • “Have you EVER been convicted in any court of the United States of a crime, sentenced to imprisonment for a term exceeding 1 year for that crime, and incarcerated as a result of that sentence for not less than 1 year? (Include all qualifying convictions in Federal, state, local, or military court, even if previously listed on this form)
  • Have you EVER been charged with any felony offense? (Include those under the Uniform Code of Military Justice and non-military/civilian felony offenses)
  • Have you EVER been convicted of an offense involving domestic violence or a crime of violence (such as battery or assault) against your child, dependent, cohabitant, spouse or legally recognized civil union/domestic partner, former spouse or legally recognized civil union/domestic partner, or someone with whom you share a child in common?
  • Have you EVER been charged with an offense involving firearms or explosives?
  • Have you EVER been charged with an offense involving alcohol or drugs?”

As you can see, the questions do not ask, “Have you ever done anything illegal?” They ask specific questions about “convictions,” “charges,” and “arrested.” As one person replied, “There is not a section on the form for ‘all crimes you committed but we’re not caught for,’ you to disclose. It’d be miles long for everyone.”

We all do plenty of illegal things, but have you ever been arrested for jaywalking? Charged and convicted with underage drinking? Prosecuted for opening a piece of mail that was not addressed to you? If the answer is no, then the SF-86 doesn’t need to know about it.

guilt grabbing and Why you shouldn’t do it

In general, honesty is always the best policy when it comes to the security clearance process. I’ve discussed before the idea of “the Nixon Rule” – that covering up an issue will probably get you in more trouble than the issue itself. But sometimes, as in this case, honesty is unnecessary. Don’t misunderstand – the alternative is not to lie or to hide an indiscretion. But answer the question as the form, investigator, or examiner gives it to you. Apart from wasting an investigator’s time, you could accidentally get yourself into trouble.

One place where guilt grabbing can be potentially devastating is on the polygraph exam. As Sean Bigley, national security attorney and managing partner of Bigley Ranish LLP, explains:

Many well-meaning examinees get themselves into trouble by needlessly speculating about answers to questions or over-volunteering information that wasn’t specifically requested. Your polygraph examiner is not your friend and, much like with the police, anything you give them can – and often will – be used against you. Clear, concise “yes” and “no” answers are appropriate for most questions. If you are asked to speculate, politely decline and tell the examiner that you don’t know the answer to his or her question. If you are asked to elaborate on a certain answer at any stage of the process, be sure to volunteer facts and circumstances that may help mitigate concerns, but otherwise keep your answers tight and on-point. If additional information is required, you will be asked for it.

In short, don’t answer questions they’re not asking. Don’t let your guilty conscience get in the way of common sense. You may feel bad about the pack of gum you stole when you were five, but the federal government does not.


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 – 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

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Caroline's 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.