For many security clearance applicants, obtaining interim eligibility is the holy grail of the application process. That’s because many employers, especially smaller government contractors who operate on tighter margins, require an applicant to obtain an interim clearance as a condition of employment. Even with security clearance processing times down dramatically from past highs, a new hire who cannot work for months while awaiting a final adjudication is of little current use.

How Interim Security Clearance Decisions Are Made

Despite this, few applicants seem to understand how interim security clearance decisions are made or what they can do to improve their odds of success. Most of the resources and literature on security clearances pertain to final decisions, as only those are appealable. This is unfortunate, since an understanding of the process and what adjudicators are looking at in assessing eligibility can potentially make a world of difference for some applicants.

Interim adjudications are, in effect, risk management decisions. The government conducts a preliminary review of the applicant “on paper” (and by querying government databases) prior to having conducted any field investigation. An assessment is made on the odds of the applicant obtaining a final clearance based on the information at hand.

Of that information, the single most important document – and, ironically, the one thing an applicant can influence – is the SF-86 s/he completes. If the SF-86 contains information that is obviously disqualifying, or if the information provided simply isn’t enough to render an informed decision, then the default decision is to deny the interim clearance. If, on the other hand, the SF-86 presents a “clean” case or one with only minor, non-disqualifying issues, a favorable decision on interim eligibility may be made.

Applicant Plays a Role in Gaining an Interim Clearance

Each case is assessed individually, and it is impossible to address every scenario or account for every possible issue that may impact a grant of interim eligibility. But the point is that, in many cases that fall short of containing obviously disqualifying information, the interim eligibility is not granted solely because the adjudicator lacked sufficient information to make a decision. That’s where the applicant comes in.

The SF-86 includes a number of optional comments sections within the body of the form, as well as a continuation space at the end where the applicant can provide additional information. With some notable exceptions (including, for example, where criminal charges are pending and commenting on the charges may jeopardize rights or defenses in that case), it is often in the applicant’s interest to utilize the comments section to provide additional information that may help mitigate issues on the SF-86.

Common Problems for Applicants

One of the most common examples is where the applicant has a history of financial problems. In such cases, a detailed narrative explaining the efforts applicant has undertaken to resolve the debts, establish a budget, and obtain financial education can go a long way in demonstrating that the situation is under control and unlikely to be repeated. It also shows an awareness of the potential security concern and an acceptance of personal responsibility, both of which bode well for the applicant.

A similar approach may be taken in cases involving past substance abuse. Including written comments within the SF-86 and tailored to pertinent mitigating factors (like a lack of future intent, completion of rehab or counseling, and changes in lifestyle) can be very helpful in assessing the applicant’s credibility and the extent to which the past drug use remains a current security concern.

Such commentary isn’t appropriate in every case and may, on occasion, risk creating bigger problems if done incorrectly. But when it is appropriate and helpful, it’s often very helpful. That’s something worth considering if obtaining an interim clearance is critical for maintaining employment.



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