In June 2017 I wrote an article for this site entitled “When Hiring a Professional Organizer Might Save Your Career”. The article was predicated on the idea that many people who lose their security clearance for financial reasons find themselves in that position at least in part as a result of disorganization and clutter. As I wrote then, the problems manifest themselves in predictable ways:

“Bills end-up buried in piles of extraneous paper, collection notices are left to languish, and even tax lien notifications are strewn amongst excess clutter or shoved into drawers.  More often than not, the means to pay the bills are there – or were there at some point – but the disorganization has significantly compounded what was once an easily manageable problem.”

Clutter+ Your Clearance=national security problems

Over two years later, the observation of a link between disorganization or clutter and security clearance problems remains a prescient one – but in an entirely unexpected new way.  What we’ve since encountered multiple times in our practice is the clearance holder whose disorganization problem spills from his or her personal life into the workplace – resulting in classified information being inadvertently taken home.

The fact patterns of the cases differ, but the crucial element is always the same: the clearance holder thought he or she was only taking home unclassified materials to work on after-hours. Subsequently they discovered that they had inadvertently commingled classified and unclassified materials before departing their work space.

If the clearance holder quickly discovers the oversight, immediately returns the classified material to the proper place, and promptly self-reports the mistake to security, a spill assessment is conducted and usually closed with a mere warning on the first occasion. The problem, however, is that the same poor organizational habits that got the clearance holder into the situation often result in significantly delayed discovery of the oversight.

When Clutter Leads to a Search Warrant

I can recall at least two cases where a panicked clearance holder in these circumstances discovered classified information in their home years after it was inadvertently removed from the workplace. In one particular instance, the clearance-holder admitted during a polygraph examination to recently discovering marked, highly classified information at home – yet the polygraph interview was the first time the employing agency was hearing about it. The clearance-holder returned home following the interview to be met by federal agents with a search warrant.

Obviously, these are extreme examples and most clearance holders who inadvertently take home classified material – something which happens with surprising frequency – do the right thing and promptly notify their security office. But I provide these examples to make a point: that the vast majority of mishandling incidents are the product of sloppy organizational habits and thus entirely preventable. Not everyone needs a personal organizer or an intervention. But, then again, no one on the can’t-look-away-train-wreck of a show called “Hoarders” seems to think they have a problem either.

If you think that you have a problem with organization or excess clutter, the time to get a handle on it is definitely now. Start by reviewing your organizational and information handling procedures at work and identify any vulnerabilities that could result in inadvertent security violations. Your clearance and continued employment just might depend on it.

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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Sean M. Bigley retired from the practice of law in 2023, after a decade representing clients in the security clearance process. He was previously an investigator for the Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency (then-U.S. Office of Personnel Management) and served from 2020-2024 as a presidentially-appointed member of the National Security Education Board. For security clearance assistance, readers may wish to consider Attorney John Berry, who is available to advise and represent clients in all phases of the security clearance process, including pre-application counseling, denials, revocations, and appeals. Mr. Berry can be found at