Recently, I got a phone call from a guy—we’ll call him John. John said he needed help appealing his security clearance denial. A lot of people get the terminology wrong, so I assumed he received a Statement of Reasons (SOR). John then told me that the government attorney said the documents he submitted were fine and based on the judge’s suggestion, he submitted some letters of recommendation. Obviously, John was well past the SOR stage. He’d already had a hearing before a DOHA Administrative Judge, and the judge had denied his clearance.

John’s Situation

His issue was “Financial Considerations,” and at the hearing, the only documents he submitted were some that showed he was paying off his delinquent debts. The DOHA Judge suggested that John obtain some letters of recommendation, and the judge offered to keep the hearing record open for a couple of weeks so John could submit the letters to DOHA. Unfortunately, John failed to mitigate other aspects of his financial problems, so the letters of recommendation weren’t enough to convince the judge to grant him a clearance.

The Importance of Recommendation Letters

This reminded me of how important letters of recommendation can be to a DOHA Judge or to any security clearance adjudicator. Letters of recommendation can be submitted in response to an Interrogatory, an SOR, a File Of Relevant Material, or at a hearing.

Over the years, I’ve seen scores of recommendation letters written for security clearance applicants who didn’t bother to provide any guidance to the people who wrote the letters. Most of these letters failed to actually recommend the applicant for a security clearance. Often the letters were undated and unsigned. Many letters were written like recommendations for employment because people are more familiar with that type of recommendation letter. 

What Does An Adjudicator Need to See in Your Recommendation Letter?

Security clearance adjudicators aren’t potential employers, and they aren’t interested in an applicant’s education, technical knowledge, and experience. They’re interested in academic and work performance, ability to get along with others, and willingness to comply with rules. They want to know about the applicant’s honesty, integrity, discretion, reliability, and trustworthiness. It’s great if the letters also address the security issue that the applicant needs to mitigate, but it’s not necessary—unless the issue is Foreign Influence or Foreign Preference. Most of these recommendation letters will be considered under the “Whole-Person” concept, so if the letters only talk about the applicant’s general conduct and character they will still influence an adjudicator’s decision.

Example of What to Include

Good letters of recommendation fully identify the writer, including U.S. citizenship, occupation, work or home address, and security clearance, if any.  The letters explain the nature, frequency and period of association the writer has or has had with the applicant. For example:

I, James T. Wilson, reside at 123 Oak Street, Anytown, Pennsylvania 12345. I met John Doe in about February 2014 when he first came to work at ABC Corporation, Anytown, PA. We worked on the same engineering team and collaborated on many projects together. From February 2014 to January 2018, we interacted almost every day at work and often had lunch together. In January 2018, John transferred to another department at ABC Corporation, but since then, we still see each other a couple of times a week for lunch and often stop and talk when we run into each other in the hallways. Since 2014, we and our wives have visited each other’s homes about four times a year for dinner. John and I have spent many weekend afternoons together watching sports competitions on television.

Right before the jurat is a good place to include the writer’s contact information and a declarative sentence recommending the applicant for a security clearance:

I am a native born U.S. citizen and work as an electrical engineer at ABC Corporation. I have held a DoD security clearance for 10 years. I recommend John Doe for a position of trust and responsibility with the U.S. Government that involves access to highly classified national security information. Please telephone me at 123-456-7890 or send an email to, should you have any questions.

Your Recommendation Letter Writer Should Already Know Your Business

Between these two paragraphs the writer should state their opinion of the applicant’s honesty, integrity, discretion, reliability, and trustworthiness, as well as cite a few specific examples of applicant’s conduct that show these traits. They can also comment on the applicant’s reputation at work, at school, or in their neighborhood. If the writer knows about the issue that’s causing the applicant a security clearance eligibility problem, they should discuss what they know about it. Hopefully what the writer knows about the applicant’s problem will corroborate with what the applicant has said about it. A recommendation from a person, who knows about the applicant’s problem, is stronger than one from someone who doesn’t know about the problem. It also shows that the writer is more than a casual acquaintance. 

Authenticity is Key

The greatest shortcoming I repeatedly see in recommendation letters is lack of authenticity. An undated letter without a signature has much less probative value than a dated original letter with a handwritten ink signature. A person’s name written in a script font is not a substitute for a handwritten signature. An ink signature is not critical, but the signature should be handwritten. Submitting a letter with a handwritten signature that’s been faxed to you or scanned and sent to you as an email attachment is fine. The inclusion of the writer’s email address and telephone number with an invitation to contact the writer adds even more authenticity to the letter. Asking someone who has written a letter for you to have their signature on the letter notarized is probably asking too much. But it’s not a big deal to ask them include a jurat from Title 28 U.S.C. § 1746. They can simply put it at the end of their letter to add a little more authenticity:

Pursuant to Title 28 U.S.C. § 1746, I declare under penalty of perjury under the laws of the United States of America that the foregoing is true and correct. Executed on (date).

(Handwritten Signature) 

(Printed Name)

How many Recommendation Letters Do You Need?

Usually six to eight letters of recommendation from people who know you well are sufficient. Try to choose two people who know you at work, two from where you live, and two who know you socially. If you’re a student or recent graduate, include two people who know you from school. Redundancy is okay, but more than eight letters would probably be overly redundant—unless you changed jobs or residences in the past two or three years. You should try to avoid asking people who are not U.S. citizens for a letter of recommendation. Of course you shouldn’t tell anyone what to write about you, but you can point them to this article if they need some guidance.

Copyright © 2020 Federal Clearance Assistance Service. All rights reserved. 

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William H. Henderson is a retired federal clearance investigator, President of Federal Clearance Assistance Service (FEDCAS), author of Security Clearance Manual, Issue Mitigation Handbook, and a regular contributor to and