There are few issues that raise counterintelligence concerns faster than the prospect of a security clearance holder being blackmailed or extorted. Yet incredibly, most security briefings offered to clearance holders place little emphasis on this threat – if they address it at all.

That’s a real disservice to the cleared community and one that results in avoidable problems, like clearance holders submitting to the demands of criminals for fear of losing their careers. Before addressing the threat, however, it is important to understand what it actually is.

What is Extortion and Blackmail?

Extortion is a threat to obtain or do something by force. Common examples are the mafia’s notorious “protection payments” (pay us or we’ll hurt you) and the more recent phenomenon of ransomware attacks, wherein a computer user clicks an infected link and a criminal remotely locks the user out of his or her files until payment is made.

Blackmail is a subset of extortion. With blackmail, a person threatens to reveal embarrassing or damaging personal information unless his or her demands are met. Like extortion, the demands often include payment but could include essentially anything – including, for example, providing classified information to someone not authorized to receive it.

If you think that blackmail and extortion are only a figment of spy thrillers, think again. Each year a small but persistent number of clearance holders face very real threats from criminals – mostly the cyber variety – to release compromising images of the clearance holder; hold his or her property (e.g. computer files) hostage for ransom; or share secrets with others about topics like infidelity. And for every clearance holder actually facing a threat of blackmail or extortion, you can bet that there are plenty more with reason to fear it.

My office encounters this issue a couple times per year with clearance holders who are either concerned that something in their background could be fertile ground for blackmail or are actively facing a blackmail or extortion threat. The question – what to do about it – depends on the circumstances. Those concerned about blackmail potential face a stark reality: there is often little that can be done proactively besides “come clean” with persons or entities who may be impacted by the information. That includes the government, especially if the issue requires self-reporting under Security Executive Agent Directive-3. Unfortunately, coming clean risks a security clearance revocation for the underlying conduct and, in some cases, waiving important legal rights like the right to remain silent in a criminal case – so always talk with an attorney first.

Neither of those outcomes are particularly palatable for most clearance holders. But those who are actively facing a blackmail or extortion threat fare much worse. Blackmail and extortion are rarely one-time situations; rather, once criminals discover their target is willing to pay or otherwise acquiesce, the demands often continue and become more significant. In most cases, the only option is for the target to immediately contact law enforcement authorities for help.

There is little security significance to an extortion effort that a clearance holder rejects. Blackmail, however, is a different animal. No matter how he or she responds to an actual blackmail attempt, a clearance holder faces being deemed a security risk. There is at least a mitigation argument to be made in cases where the clearance holder recognized the threat to national security and contacted law enforcement instead of acquiescing to the demands. Whether that is enough to overcome any underlying derogatory information (i.e. the basis for the blackmail) depends on the nature and severity of that information. One thing is clear though: any alternative means of addressing the situation turns the clearance holder into Exhibit A of the term “national security risk”. There’s no coming back from that.


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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Attorney Sean M. Bigley represents clients worldwide in security clearance denials, revocations, and the security clearance application process. He is a former investigator for the Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency (then-U.S. Office of Personnel Management). For more information, please visit Readers will also find a low-cost, self-help option for obtaining copies of their security clearance background investigations and DISS/Scattered Castles records at