The Standard Form 86, or SF-86, is the questionnaire used to obtain a Secret or Top Secret security clearance. And it’s a whopping 127 pages. (We’ll let that sink in.) It’s packed full of questions that require a very high level of transparency and honesty. In fact, lying on your SF-86 can not only cost you your clearance, but it can also land you in jail. Thanks in part to its hefty size and vague guidelines, it’s common for people to unintendedly under-report on the form. But for some of those same reasons, it’s also possible to share too much—things you actually don’t have to share.
According to Kel McClanahan, a national security attorney and law professor at George Washington University Law School, the SF-86 lacks concrete guidance for things that you’re not required to report. “As you’ve no doubt observed, there are lots of written examples of what you do have to report, but precious few examples of what you don’t have to report,” he says. The reason for that, McClanahan says, should be obvious. “They want people reporting everything—even the stuff they can’t legally insist on,” he explains. “So, they leave it up to you to figure out what to report and not to report, all while warning of dire consequences for people who withhold information, so that most people will over-report out of fear.” Remember that threat of jail time?
The SF-86 is also riddled with ambiguously worded questions, causing serious confusion. “There is often a significant discrepancy between what a question says it is looking for and what it is actually looking for,” says McClanahan. The questions are formed so as to be overinclusive. But as a result, he says, the questions can sometimes encompass areas that don’t need to be reported. “I will often have a discussion with a client where he will ask, ‘But do I need to put XYZ in response to this question?’” McClanahan says, adding “and my response will be, ‘I know that taken in a vacuum, the question does appear to ask for that, but it really isn’t asking for that.’”
All this confusion can lead applicants to turn to others for help, from attorneys like McClanahan to human resources professionals and even recruiters. And unfortunately, applicants often get different answers depending on who they ask. “I have a client who was told by one recruiter that he didn’t have to report something and then told by a different recruiter at the same agency that he did,” he says. “This is very common. Then, when one of their friends or colleagues is being investigated, they helpfully pass along the advice they got, which is wrong as often as it is right.”
But here, we offer three things that, unequivocally, you don’t have to disclose on the SF-86.
1. Some foreign contacts.
In Section 19 of the SF-86, you’ll be asked to list foreign contacts—a section that often trips up applicants, says Bradley P. Moss, a national security attorney. That’s in part due to the vague and subjective language contained in the question, which asks for contacts who are “close and/or continuing,” describes Moss. But, “to be clear, unless they were a foreign government official or part of a foreign company trying to hire you, you do not need to report every random foreign national you happened to interact with on your last vacation to Europe and then never saw again,” he says.
2. A rescinded offer of employment.
Moss reports that “countless clients have written on their SF-86 that they were denied a security clearance when, in fact, all that happened was a government agency previously rescinded an offer of employment.” You don’t have to report a rescinded offer—and if you weren’t actually denied clearance, “don’t say they did,” Moss says.
3. Some mental health conditions.
Common mental health conditions such as ADHD, OCD, or anxiety don’t interest the government. “Unless it played a role in you being hospitalized, declared mentally incompetent, or you were ordered to seek counseling for it, the government does not have any interest in your mental health history,” he says. It cares about “conditions that implicate psychotic disorders and major personality problems,” such as schizophrenia, he says. “But they are not generally interested in your routine Xanax prescription,” Moss adds. And just about any mental health condition can be mitigated with treatment. It’s a much bigger issue to have an undiagnosed mental health condition, which can contribute to personal conduct issues and other concerns about reliability and trustworthiness – the main issues the government is concerned about.