When it comes to applying for a security clearance, applicants are often more afraid to reveal too little than too much in the investigation process. After all, holding back crucial information can cost you your clearance—and putting down false information on your Standard Form 86 (SF-86) could lead to a felony charge and even jail time. And so, it’s no wonder so many people share more than they need to.
Honesty Does Not Equal Confession Time
But, “your application, interview, or even your polygraph is not your confessional,” explains Kel McClanahan, a national security attorney and law professor at George Washington University Law School. “You have no duty to volunteer information that they don’t ask for.” Instead, what you must do, McClanahan says, is honestly answer the questions they do ask. “Don’t be cagey and lawyerly, but don’t tell them your life story,” he says. “Most of the time they don’t care about every little thing [you’re] embarrassed about,” but they could start to care, McClanahan says, if you make a big enough deal of it and they think the information could be used to blackmail you.
While you need to use your best discretion, is is helpful to know specifics of what is does not have to be revealed in an investigation.
five things You do not need to reveal in an investigation
1. You’re homosexual.
While all agencies are legally prohibited from denying clearance to gay people simply because of their sexual orientation, they can deny your clearance if you’re in the closet and they’re concerned someone could use that information to blackmail you. “That doesn’t mean that every closeted gay person needs to out themselves to get a clearance, but it does mean that if you are gay and fine with people finding out, don’t even mention it,” says McClanahan, adding, “the mere act of mentioning it could create suspicion that you’re not as out as you say.”
2. Minor offenses for which you were never caught.
If you’ve jaywalked, for example, you don’t need to fess up in an investigation—nor do you have to confess taking $20 from your mother’s purse when you were a child, says McClanahan. “You do need to tell them about every time you were arrested for something or anything you did that was major, whether or not you got caught,” he says. What’s major? Well, that’s in the eye of the beholder. “But a general rule of thumb is [that] if it comes with jail time, it’s major,” McClanahan says.
3. Minor tax infractions.
According to McClanahan, “everyone cheats on their taxes.” Case in point: “No, that lamp you donated to Goodwill wasn’t worth $50 at the time you donated it,” he says, and, “yes, you should have claimed the $12.52 interest you got on that one money market account.” But the security clearance process is not the time to come clean, he warns, unless, of course, the tax infraction is large enough that it would warrant an independent IRS investigation.
4. The people who don’t like you.
McClanahan says some people think that their chances of getting clearance will be hurt if they only list as references the people who like them. “They adopt this mentality of radical transparency where they will answer the question ‘who do you know who could talk about your time at that job, school, residence?’ with someone who didn’t like them in the interest of fairness,” McClanahan says. But, he adds, “you have no duty to shoot yourself in the foot for no good reason.” While you do have to list who your supervisor was whether or not he liked you, “you don’t have to volunteer the neighbor who always yelled at you about your dog or the coworker who never liked you after you hooked up at a party,” he says. “With that being said, you should be aware that there is a decent chance that the investigator will find that person on her own, since they don’t limit themselves to the names you gave them.”
5. All the people you used to date.
If your ex falls under another category—for example, he was also your most recent roommate—then you may have to list him during the investigation. But “you are under no general duty to list all the people you had a relationship with if they don’t fall under some other category,” McClanahan says. “You’d be surprised how many people still volunteer a list of the people most likely to both have dirt on them and be willing to share it.”
Caution: Omission on Your SF86 Leads to Clearance Denial
But a word of caution: “The security clearance process does not care for legal technicalities,” McClanahan warns. That means if you’re asked if you have ever committed a major crime, it doesn’t matter if you weren’t caught or were acquitted. Or, if you’re asked if you’ve ever been married, it doesn’t matter if it was annulled. “If you fail to disclose any of these things on the basis of a legal definition, it will be treated as any other knowing omission,” he says. “The adjudicator will wash his hands of the matter, deny the clearance, and leave it to you and your lawyer to resolve it through the appeal process. You will probably win the appeal—if the omission is the only concern—but you will be unable to work for [as long as] the appeal takes.”