For individuals with a history of recent binge drinking, recent alcohol-related legal troubles, or a recent diagnosis of alcohol use disorder, one of the most significant challenges to obtaining or retaining a security clearance can be an insufficient passage of time.

In most cases, six to twelve months is considered the minimum amount of time necessary for demonstrating a lack of continued maladaptive use. Unfortunately, not all security clearance holders and applicants have the luxury of time. What does one do if called to account for more recent alcohol-related problems? And even if it has been six to twelve months since sobriety (or moderation of consumption, in some cases), how does one prove that to the satisfaction of security officials?

Mitigating Alcohol-Related Problems

There are a number of ways in which to mitigate past alcohol-related problems, including successful completion of a treatment program, enrollment in ongoing counseling or a twelve-step program (e.g., Alcoholics Anonymous), demonstrable changes in lifestyle, and affidavits from people who know the clearance holder or applicant well and can attest firsthand to reformation.

For individuals who are serious about winning their security clearance case, I generally recommend an all-of-the-above approach – albeit with some exceptions depending on individual circumstances.

The fact remains, however, that rates of relapse for problem-drinkers are especially high – some studies say as much as 80% – within the first year after abstinence or moderation of consumption. Security officials know this and may still view claims of very recent reformation with skepticism, notwithstanding significant mitigating information, until proven otherwise.

The PEth Test

Enter the phosphatidylethanol (PEth) test. A relatively new tool in the security world, PEth tests use chemistry and basic blood testing technology to detect and measure moderate to heavy alcohol consumption. Most scientific evidence suggests that PEth tests can “look back” up to four weeks, meaning that an individual who tested negative can provide strong proof that he or she had not consumed alcohol to excess within that time period. The argument goes that someone who abuses alcohol could not likely refrain from excess consumption for that length of time, so even a single recent negative PEth test may help prove the point.

Save for a couple outliers, PEth testing is rarely conducted by federal agencies; many security officials seem unaware that it exists as an option. This presents a potential opportunity for security clearance holders and applicants who have legitimately remained sober or moderated their consumption for the proffered period of time. In such cases, a recent negative PEth test can sometimes add to an already-strong case for mitigation.

Importantly, however, PEth tests should not be viewed by security clearance holders or applicants as a silver bullet or one-stop-shopping. More traditional means of mitigation like those described above are vital reflections of the individual’s sincerity and credibility in the eyes of security officials.


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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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