In March of 2020 the National Counterintelligence and Security Center released guidance clarifying that COVID-19-related financial hardships shouldn’t have a negative impact on clearance eligibility. Then director of NCSC William Evanina noted “we are aware of the potential for economic hardship on security clearance holders.” The guidance was an effort to reassure both current security clearance holders and future applicants. In both cases, that kind of clarification from intelligence community leadership is key to ensuring the national security doesn’t take risky financial moves – or become an insider – in order to address financial struggles that arise.
True or False: The government takes current events into consideration in the clearance process.
A recent case brought before the Defense Office of Hearings and Appeals (DOHA) involved a 55-year-old supply chain specialist who was applying for a security clearance and had debts to nine different creditors totaling more than $113,000. The debts included collections, charge-offs, and repossessions. The applicant testified that prior to COVID-19, he had no financial issues. But after losing his job due to downsizing in January 2020, the applicant and his spouse spent six to seven months on unemployment benefits, at a dramatic reduction from his prior salary. The applicant that he paid his mortgage and for necessities, but did not pay other bills during this period.
The applicant obtained a new position with the current employer seeking to sponsor his clearance in April 2021, At that point, the applicant pulled equity out of his home and refinanced in order to pay off all of his unresolved debts. A home equity loan of $65,000 and cash out refinance of $88,000 allowed the applicant to pay off all of the items listed in the Statement of Reasons prior to his case being reviewed by DOHA.
A picture of proactivity
The applicant in this case is in many ways a perfect picture of proactivity in addressing issues before they come before DOHA. One can argue about the financial responsibility, but the fact that the applicant took accountability and paid off the debts is a key indicator of desire to be proactive in addressing financial issues and willingness to take significant steps to address them. Money and debt are less of a factor in the clearance process than what they display about an individual’s character and reliability. Many applicants say they ‘can’ or ‘will’ address their financial issues – and then completely fail to do so before their case appears before a DOHA judge. In an ideal world, an individual would address financial issues before applying for a security clearance at all, but in the many cases where employment and a clearance go hand-in-hand, often the applicant isn’t in a position to address financial issues until they have a job lined up.
True: Current Events Do Play a Rule in Clearance Determinations
The security clearance background investigation process considers factors like government shutdowns, economic recessions, and global pandemics. The government doesn’t need to issue new policies to ensure the clearance process doesn’t penalize applicants, either – language specific to the financial considerations adjudicative guideline states as a mitigator: “(b) the conditions that resulted in the financial problem were largely beyond the person’s control (e.g., loss of employment, a business downturn, unexpected medical emergency, a death, divorce or separation, clear victimization by predatory lending practices, or identity theft), and the individual acted responsibly under the circumstances.”
Where relying on current events can fail applicants is if they don’t look at a calendar. Several security clearance appeals cases for applicants who have failed to pay their student loan debts in the past have indicated student loan payment pauses as the reason. Unfortunately, in many of these cases the applicant wasn’t paying their student loans for years before payment pauses were in place. Being up front with your issues – and addressing them as soon as you are reasonably able to do so – is the best step one can take.