If you’ve ever watched “Designated Survivor” or other political dramas, you might be under the impression that every presidential administration has a few high-ranking officials with skeletons in the closet. In fact, that’s precisely what a good vetting process – the kind that White House’s of both political parties have honed and refined since World War II – is designed to ferret out. That’s not to say that best intentions always work out as planned; they don’t. But the idea behind the extra scrutiny is simple. Those with direct access to the President or Vice President often have the potential to do significantly more damage to national security than the average federal employee or contractor. They need to be assessed for loyalty, judgment, and risk accordingly.

Lessons Learned for Political Appointee Hopefuls

The process that has developed for doing that is one that few people besides the infinitesimally small percentage of the population who get the honor of serving in the White House or the top echelon of a federal agency ever see. I’ve had the privilege of being one of them in two Administrations now; and I’ve shepherded dozens of nominees and appointees from both parties through it.

Here are a few lessons I’ve learned from the experiences that anyone who aspires to a political appointment may wish to heed.

1. The scope of inquiry on the SF-86 form can be expanded from the usual 7-10 years of coverage to 15 years of coverage or all the way back until one’s 18th birthday, depending on the level of appointment.

Since most of us have done something we regret in our late teens or early twenties, be prepared to re-live that cringe-worthy moment and whatever else you thought was a distant memory. Investigators and the White House Counsel’s office aren’t just looking for the usual security issues like foreign influence, substance abuse, and criminal history; they’re looking more broadly for anything that could potentially embarrass the president.

2. Paying household employees under the table sinks a huge number of candidates.

Many people immediately dismiss this issue as irrelevant because the term “household employees” conjures up issues of butlers and chauffeurs – luxuries few can afford.  In reality, the definition encompasses nannies and individuals hired for housekeeping, too. Anyone who you directly hire, control, and pay (as contrasted against an independent business that works for multiple clients) is considered a household employee. The IRS and most states expect that you register as a household employer and pay a variety of taxes (payroll, unemployment insurance, etc.) on their earnings. Having complied with these laws myself, I’ll be the first to admit that they are onerous and utterly obnoxious. Unfortunately, those who don’t comply may miss out on the opportunity of a lifetime because of it.

3. A whole lot of people you’d never suspect snort cocaine, take party drugs, and hire prostitutes.

I’m not passing judgment other than to say it is extraordinarily risky behavior that sometimes goes hand-in-hand with the type of hard-charging personalities that are attracted to politics. Think of how many politicians have been caught up in sex and/or drug-related scandals. It’s not just the politicians doing this stuff. It’s also their staff members.

The risk here from a national security standpoint is obvious. Anyone engaged in these sorts of activities is a walking blackmail case. Add access to highly classified information to the mix, and you have a foreign intelligence officer’s dream. And that doesn’t even begin to address broader questions about judgment and reliability.

Of course, that’s not to say that a lot of good people haven’t turned their lives around after a history of drug use. If you are one of them, you’ll need to allow at least a couple years of complete (and ideally verifiable) abstinence before having a shot at being cleared. You’ll also need to be completely transparent about your history of use and prepared to articulate how you turned things around. Inspirational stories can pay dividends here, if they are true.

4. Sometimes, issues that would prove an insurmountable security obstacle for the average federal employee or contractor aren’t a deal-breaker for political appointees.

That may sound like a double-standard, but context is key. If you’re being appointed Secretary of Defense or CIA Director, to use extreme examples, chances are good that you know a lot of high-ranking foreign military or intelligence officials. The assumption is that you’ve gotten to that level by exercising the utmost in discretion, good judgment, and demonstrated patriotism. The contacts are thus more of a byproduct of service (and now a necessity) and less of a security risk.

Contrast that to the typical federal worker, for whom cavorting with a known foreign intelligence official raises major red flags. There are, of course, plenty of lower-level political appointees for whom such relationships would set off similar alarm bells. But at least for this example of foreign contacts, the higher up the government food chain one climbs, the more likely foreign contacts are to be a reality of daily life.

Legal Counsel Also Helpful for Political Appointees

Like any other security clearance applicant, those who are being vetted for a political appointment are wise to seek competent legal counsel first. The rewards of service can be enormous, but so can the risks of failing to correctly navigate the cumbersome and highly invasive security process. Proceed with caution.


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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Security Clearance Attorney Sean M. Bigley represents clients worldwide in security clearance denials and revocations. He is a former investigator for the U.S. Office of Personnel Management. For more information, please visit www.bigleylaw.com