One common way that security clearance applicants get themselves in trouble is by making statements on the SF-86 that are inconsistent with previous submissions. All applicants should expect that security officials will compare a current SF-86 against prior iterations as a matter of course. That’s why you should also always keep a copy of your SF-86’s, and one of many reasons why it’s important not to lie. The truth is a lot easier to remember years later.

Reasons Inconsistencies Happen to Applicants

Besides blatant lies, however, there are also other situations where an SF-86 might be inconsistent with – or even in outright conflict with – prior submissions. Not all of these scenarios translate into guaranteed trouble, but they can if you’re not alert to them and the misperceptions they might cause.

One such example of an inconsistency that may, but doesn’t have to, be problematic is an inadvertent one: people who check “no” to the question about if they’ve “EVER” previously been arrested for a felony, but who checked “yes” on a prior submission. It happens with surprising frequency. A lot of these folks have told me over the years that they did so because they were under the mistaken, albeit good-faith belief that they didn’t have to re-report information they’d already reported previously. They interpreted the question, and the SF-86 generally, as only seeking new information since the last SF-86 they completed.

When to Bring in a Lawyer

As an attorney, that’s not how I’d personally interpret the questions (nor is it objectively correct), but it is within the bounds of reasonableness that some people might interpret it that way – or at least be unsure how to answer. After all, their logic goes, how many times do you have to tell the government that you were arrested for a felony 25 years ago – especially if it was favorably adjudicated during your prior investigation(s)?

In a situation like this – or in any scenario where you’re unsure how to answer a question – the best thing to do is to first seek out competent legal counsel. If you can’t or don’t want to do that, the next best alternative is to answer the question how you reasonably think it should be answered, but then include an explanatory note in the comments section explaining how you interpreted the question and adding whatever additional detail could be responsive to the alternative interpretation. For example: “I checked ‘no’ to this question about prior felonies because my understanding is that I’m only required to report new information since my last SF-86. I did, however, have a felony arrest for (charge) (number of) years ago, which I am happy to discuss if my interpretation was incorrect.”

The downside to this approach is that if the information you’re providing isn’t responsive to the question, you’ve now provided security officials with derogatory information they’re entitled to adjudicate. Is it going to be a problem for you if its outside of the question’s scope? It depends on the information at issue. Bu in most cases, a falsification rap is a far bigger battle.

What’s in and Out of Scope

Speaking of scope, the other scenario where inconsistencies arise between SF-86’s is where information an applicant reported previously has now fallen outside of the question’s scope. For example, you reported on your 2017 SF-86 that you’d smoked marijuana within the last 7 years in light of some 2013 experimentation. Years later, you are completing a new SF-86 and haven’t touched the stuff since 2013. It’s outside the 7-year reporting scope so you can confidently answer “no” to the question about illegal drug use within the last 7 years (provided you didn’t start experimenting with other drugs in the interim).

To my mind, this seems like a fairly clear judgment call, but a lot of applicants contact my office in a panic over how to answer questions under these or similar circumstances. Incredibly, it’s also not an entirely unfounded fear; we’ve seen a handful of falsification allegations over the years where security officials simply couldn’t count. Once we pointed out the obvious, the cases were quietly withdrawn.

Ultimately, many SF-86 inconsistencies can be avoided or explained using critical reading, common sense, and supplemental explanation where necessary. But the form can also be deceptively simple or complicated, depending on how you look at it. Help yourself by not rushing through it.


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