Government work, perhaps more than any other industry, lends itself to an alphabet soup of acronyms, jargon, and lingo. Security clearance matters are no exception. So, if you’ve ever found yourself scratching your head trying to decipher what your security manager just said, here is a helpful primer of commonly-used security clearance terms.

9 Security Clearance Terms to Know

Instead of asking around, here are the top nine security clearance terms for your reference.

1. “Active” Clearance

Current eligibility for access to classified information (as determined by an appropriate background investigation and adjudication), coupled with a current requirement that the individual access classified information as part of his or her job duties. Also requires written agreement by the individual to terms of classified information access and an initial security briefing (“indoctrination”).

2. Administratively Terminated or Downgraded Clearance

A determination by cognizant security officials that an individual no longer requires access to classified information, or requires access to only a lower level of classified information, to perform his or her job duties. Not a punitive determination and should not be equated with the “suspension”, “denial”, or “revocation” of a security clearance.

3. Courier Card

A credit-card-sized identification card issued by a federal agency and authorizing the named bearer to transport classified information between secure facilities. Geographic restrictions often apply (for example, “Only Within National Capitol Region”). Not an authorization to store classified information at home or in other unapproved locations.

4. “Current” Clearance

Current eligibility for access to classified information (as determined by an appropriate background investigation and adjudication), but no current requirement that the individual actually access classified information as part of his or her job duties and thus no authorization to do so. Access to classified information requires “activation” of the clearance (see “active clearance” above), which is largely a formality but an important and required one.

5. Controlled but Unclassified

Information that is not designated with a legally-recognized classification (Confidential, Secret, Top Secret), but falls into an otherwise enumerated category of information that may not be released to the general public through a Freedom of Information Act request. Examples include Privacy Act, For Official Use Only (FOUO), and Law Enforcement Sensitive (LES) information. No security clearance required to handle or access such information by statute; however, most agencies require at least a favorable “Public Trust” adjudication. NOTE: “Sensitive” information is not a recognized category of Controlled but Unclassified Information, and is an arbitrary and capricious identifier because it is entirely subjective.

6. “Flagged” Clearance

A common descriptor for a pending Joint Personnel Adjudication System (JPAS) incident report (see “JPAS” below). Legally meaningless term that, standing alone, has absolutely no bearing on the individual’s eligibility for or access to classified information. Frequently misinterpreted by security managers as a security clearance suspension.

7. “Out-of-Scope”

A determination that the individual’s most recent background investigation and/or adjudication occurred so long ago as to render the individual no longer eligible for access to classified information. Requires either a re-investigation (or, if applicable, adjudication of the completed background investigation) prior to a new determination being made about eligibility and access.

8. JPAS / CVS / Scattered Castles

Three government databases in which records of security clearance adjudications and eligibility determinations are housed. JPAS (which was supposed to have been replaced by a new system, “DISS”, but remains operable as of Spring 2020) covers primarily DoD personnel and contractors. CVS covers many non-DoD Executive Branch agencies, and Scattered Castles covers the Intelligence Community. Records are essentially a “transcript” of one’s security clearance history.

9. Visit Request

Verification of an individual’s security clearance transmitted from the employing, or “home”, agency to an agency where the individual will be attending a classified meeting or engaging in a temporary detail or project. Receiving agency is required to grant reciprocity of clearance absent extraordinary circumstances.


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