Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to advise and counsel hundreds of security clearance applicants in completing the SF-86 form. In doing so, I’ve discovered that many security clearance applicants – including those who are undergoing a periodic review – get tunnel vision during the process.

To some extent, this “eyes on the prize” mentality is understandable. Completing the SF-86 is a massive undertaking, and doing it correctly is imperative when one’s job depends on it. Unfortunately, operating with blinders on can also be costly. Some security clearance applicants get so caught up in their objective of getting or keeping the clearance that they don’t appreciate the more immediate risk: that the information they provide can be used by their employer as a basis for termination.

SF-86 Is Not Private

Contrary to popular belief, an SF-86 isn’t a private communication between the applicant and government background investigators. Local security personnel – Facility Security Officers for government contractors and Special Security Officers or Security Managers / S2’s for federal civilian or military personnel – have a role to play in the process. Besides just generating the initial e-QIP request and indoctrinating the applicant once his or her background clears, local security personnel are also charged with reviewing completed SF-86’s for completeness prior to releasing them to the investigative service provider. In plain-English, that means that your FSO or SSO/S2 will see your completed SF-86 before the background investigation or re-investigation ever commences, and can report problematic responses to your employer’s Human Resources department for action (although gossiping about it with colleagues would be a violation of the Privacy Act, as I’ve written about previously).

Drug Use Primary Offender for SF-86 Applicants

Nowhere is the risk of problems more real than for those with a history of recent illegal drug use (including marijuana) or misuse of prescription drugs. Every federal contractor, not to mention the federal government itself, has strict drug-free workplace policies in effect that apply whether on or off duty. So, submitting your SF-86 with an admission of drug use while employed with your current employer is also telling that employer that you violated their policies. This can result in administrative disciplinary action against the employee, up to and including termination. Members of the Armed Forces also face the prospect of UCMJ action and/or separation under a characterization short of “honorable”.

Be Honest and Be Proactive

If you’re starting to break out in cold sweats because you’ve used drugs while with your current employer and see an SF-86 in your near future, keep in mind that lying about the drug use will only compound the problem by adding the specter of criminal prosecution to the mix. Instead, consider speaking with legal counsel to assess your options. Proactive resignation may be the only means of dodging a proverbial bullet; but you’ll at least be able to make an informed decision before you act.


This article is intended as general information only and should not be construed as legal advice. Although the information is believed to be accurate as of the publication date, no guarantee or warranty is offered or implied.  Laws and government policies are subject to change, and the information provided herein may not provide a complete or current analysis of the topic or other pertinent considerations. 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 www.bigleylaw.com. 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 www.bigleylaw.com/security-clearance-investigation-records.