It’s common that people ask about “disqualifiers” with regard to security clearances. For example, many people want to know if having a criminal record or having used drugs automatically puts them out of the running for a clearance. In general, because the government judges security clearance applicants as a “whole person,” very few single issues are total non-starters. However, one user on the ClearanceJobs Blog had an interesting question this week: Will anything in someone’s background trigger an automatic close to a background investigation once it’s already started?

The original poster writes:

“Do public trust applicants get denied at the time the investigation catches a red flag that won’t allow the applicant to be approved at all or does the entire investigation have to be completed before being denied?

Also, as the investigator passes the completed investigation packet to a manager for final approval, does the original investigator pass along a recommendation of approval or deny?”

This brings up a more basic question for all security clearance investigations, not just Public Trust: How does the clearance process work?

How does the security clearance process work and who decides who gets one?

As we’ve written about before, there is an order to the security clearance process, regardless of which level of clearance you’re seeking or which agency it’s coming from. There are three stages to the security clearance process: initiation, investigation, and adjudication.

  • Initiation of the process begins when a government agency or contractor makes a preliminary hire. Candidates fill out their SF-85 or SF-86 forms, submit them back to the agency planning to hire them, and the agency passes along that information to the government so it can begin the next stage of the process.
  • The investigation stage is often the longest and most involved stage. The government gathers the information it needs to judge the trustworthiness of a candidate. This includes a credit check, a background check, criminal records check – and for some – a subject interview or a polygraph exam.
  • Adjudication is the final stage, where all information from the previous stages is gathered together and an adjudicator decides if a candidate is both trustworthy and suitable. The adjudicator is looking at 13 criteria to judge if that person should be granted a security clearance.

The original poster is asking about the investigation stage – can it just end if incriminating information is found in the course of the investigation? No – because investigators don’t decide who receives a clearance. Adjudicators do.

Even if an investigator discovered a serious criminal charge or out of control debt in the course of his investigation, the process will not abruptly stop. It would be presented with all the other information to the adjudicators to make the final decision.

So What Will Stop A background Investigation?

This does not mean that a security clearance background investigation can’t end abruptly. Many applications for security clearances do not see their way to the end of the process. Not because an investigator found something so scandalous that he had to call the whole thing off – but for more mundane, administrative reasons.

Many companies may initially sponsor someone for a security clearance, but in the course of the lengthy process, that candidate may accept another job. Or the company loses their contract and no longer needs that position filled. With some security clearance processing times still averaging over a year, a lot can change that may interrupt or cause an end to the clearance process.

Is there Such a Thing As an “Automatic Disqualifier” For a Security Clearance?

To address the core of the original poster’s question: Is there anything a person can do that will automatically blow their chances at getting a clearance? Yes – but the list is short.

First of all, all security clearance applicants need to be natural-born or naturalized American citizens. There is no exception to this. However, this issue would likely come up before a person could ever even begin the process. Government agencies and contractors know better than to hire a non-U.S. citizen for a job requiring a clearance.

But what’s the one behavioral issue that Uncle Sam has never budged on? Continued use of illegal drugs or drug addiction. All other issues are considered “potential” disqualifiers, depending on how they fit in with the rest of your character. Ongoing, current drug use, however, is enough in itself to kick you out of the running altogether.


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.