Maybe it was a one-night stand while on a business trip. Perhaps it was a longer-term illicit relationship. No matter the details, straying outside one’s marriage – or even a committed, monogamous relationship – can be highly problematic for security clearance-holders.

Why an Affair is an Issue

The reason for this has nothing to do with moral judgments and everything to do with the potential for blackmail, manipulation, or coercion if the information falls into the wrong hands. Its even worse if the other party to the affair is a foreign national, in which case it will be assumed that s/he is the “wrong hands” – i.e., a foreign intelligence operative or “honeypot”.

So, what is a regretful clearance-holder to do under such circumstances? And how does the government even find out about something like this when there are no questions on the SF-86 that ask about bedroom activities?

How the Government Discovers the Affair

There are a number of different ways that the government can discover a clearance-holder’s illicit affair. One of the worst is when the other party realizes that the clearance-holder is not leaving their spouse or partner (or realizes that they have a spouse or partner) and contacts the clearance-holder’s employer in a fit of rage. I’ve seen it happen, and trust me: its not pretty.

Another nearly-as-bad way an affair comes to light is if someone, including the other party to the affair, does actually try to blackmail the clearance-holder over it. These situations are rare, but they do happen, hence the government’s concern. Ironically, however, if you play your cards right by resisting the blackmail and immediately self-reporting it to security officials, this can cut both ways.

Is the government going to be happy about the affair? No. But the argument that you “might” succumb to blackmail over it is out the window because you’ve already demonstrated that you won’t. That can be a very potent defense.

More Can Come to the Light During the Clearance Process

But the more common (and mundane) ways that affairs come to the government’s attention are during a polygraph interview, where required; through interviews with SF-86 references; through the clearance-holder’s reporting of the other party as a foreign contact, if applicable; or via the clearance-holders affirmative response when asked during a subject interview whether there is anything the government doesn’t know about them that could be used for blackmail, manipulation, or coercion.

Suffice it to say, I wouldn’t count on keeping your affair hidden.

Only One Question Matters for Your Security Clearance

If and when it does come to the government’s attention, I can guarantee that the first question you’ll be asked is “who knows?” If your spouse or partner isn’t on that list, you’re in for trouble. The government will view that glaring omission as proving their point about blackmail potential. It is possible to successfully fight the initial perception under the right circumstances; but the continued refusal to tell a spouse or partner about the affair, even after the government has raised it as a concern, is a very difficult case to win.

If you do opt to tell your spouse or romantic partner about your indiscretions, be prepared to prove it with a sworn affidavit from him or her recounting exactly what you shared – in detail. If you were sleeping with someone on the side for a year but minimized it to your spouse as a one-night stand, that’s going to only further compound your problems with the government by raising an integrity concern.

Clearance-holders in such situations have a difficult choice to make, and one that I don’t envy. But the simple reality is that coming completely clean at home is just about the only way to potentially salvage the clearance.


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 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