The departments and agencies that comprise the U.S. government are often identified by an alphabet soup of acronyms and abbreviations. Plenty of them just happen to have three letters. Historically, however, someone referring to a “three letter agency” wasn’t talking about the Department of Labor (DOL) or the Postal Rate Commission (PRC). They were talking in hushed tones about the CIA, FBI, or similarly Hollywood-ready arms of our national security apparatus.

The Role of Suitability in the Intelligence Community

If your career aspirations point in that direction, you’re one of the many thousands of people who apply each year to the U.S. intelligence and federal law enforcement agencies. Before these applicants ever set foot in the door, they are subjected to a battery of security and suitability assessments designed to evaluate everything from integrity to personal finances to the potential for foreign influence.

When it comes to suitability, there are a few basic standards that apply across government – you can find them in the Code of Federal Regulations at 5 CFR Section 731.202 – but there are also some stricter, agency-specific suitability criteria that occasionally catch applicants off-guard. Make sure you’ve thoroughly investigated them before you invest your time and efforts in the application process. Here are a few of the most common:


The only automatic suitability disqualifier at CIA is any illegal drug use within the last 12 months. Apart from that, each situation is evaluated on a case-by-case basis using the whole person considerations found in the National Adjudicative Guidelines for Security Clearances. The fact is that the CIA’s work sometimes requires people who live life a bit more on the edge. That doesn’t mean that their security clearance determinations are lax – far from it – but it does mean that they are less inclined to summarily rule out applicants before assessing the context of past transgressions and the extent to which the agency is willing to overlook them in exchange for needed cultural, language, or other expertise.


Automatic disqualifiers for employment include:

  • Conviction of a felony (Special Agent candidates only: conviction of a domestic violence misdemeanor or more serious offense)
  • Any use of marijuana within the last 3 years or any use of other illegal drugs (including anabolic steroids) within the last 10 years
  • Default on a student loan insured by the U.S. Government
  • Failure of an FBI-administered urinalysis drug test
  • Knowingly or willfully engaged in acts or activities designed to overthrow the U.S. government by force
  • Failure to pay court ordered child support
  • Failure to file federal, state, or local income tax returns


Absent mitigating circumstances, applicants will be automatically denied employment if the applicant has:

  • Used (or ingested anything containing) marijuana within the three (3) years preceding the date of the application for employment. The various forms of marijuana include cannabis, hashish, hash oil, and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), in both synthetic and natural forms.
  • Used any illegal drugs other than marijuana, within the ten (10) years preceding the date of the application for employment.

This is perhaps not surprising given the DEA’s line of work. What is surprising is that a violation of these criteria can sometimes be mitigated – at least in theory. So, unlike its sister agencies, DEA offers applicants who fail to meet its eligibility criteria a chance to redeem themselves.


Automatic disqualifiers for employment include:

  • An insufficient period of U.S. residency. Candidates must have, for three of the last five years immediately prior to applying for the position, (1) resided in the United States; or (2) worked for the United States Government as an employee overseas in a federal or military capacity; or (3) been a dependent of a U.S. federal or military employee serving overseas.
  • Conviction of a felony (law enforcement candidates only: conviction of a domestic violence misdemeanor or more serious offense)

Selective Service Registration a Factor

Applicants at all agencies should also keep in mind that failure to register with Selective Service as required and a lack of U.S. citizenship will preclude an applicant’s hiring in most situations. Additionally, all or virtually all positions at federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies require a security clearance, which may disqualify many applicants who are not automatically disqualified under the agency’s suitability criteria or the government-wide suitability standards found in the Code of Federal Regulations.


This article is intended as general information only and should not be construed as legal advice. Consult an attorney regarding your specific situation. 


Related News

Sean M. Bigley retired from the practice of law in 2023, after a decade representing clients in the security clearance process. He was previously an investigator for the Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency (then-U.S. Office of Personnel Management) and served from 2020-2024 as a presidentially-appointed member of the National Security Education Board. For security clearance assistance, readers may wish to consider Attorney John Berry, who is available to advise and represent clients in all phases of the security clearance process, including pre-application counseling, denials, revocations, and appeals. Mr. Berry can be found at