By now, most clearance holders have hopefully heard of Security Executive Agent Directive (SEAD) 3, which establishes self-reporting requirements for certain events occurring in a clearance holder’s life between an initial background investigation and/or periodic reinvestigations.

As periodic reinvestigations give way to continuous evaluation, these self-reporting requirements become even more important for clearance holders to understand. Unfortunately, the requirements can be murky when viewed in conjunction with the SF-86 form and agency-specific self-reporting demands. The result for clearance holders can be exasperated frustration; and, in some cases, allegations of non-compliance.

Problems with Self Reporting

Two of the most common examples I’ve seen create problems surround the issues of marriage and who constitutes a reportable foreign contact. The latter was already an enormous source of confusion for applicants and has consistently been at issue in security clearance denial and revocation cases. But SEAD-3 further complicates things by diverging from the SF-86 in how it defines a reportable foreign contact. Specifically, the SF-86 defines a reportable foreign contact as any foreign national (excluding dual citizens) with whom you have or have had:

“…close and/or continuing contact…within the last seven (7) years with whom you, or your spouse, or legally recognized civil union/domestic partner, or cohabitant are bound by affection, influence, common interests, and/or obligation? Include associates as well as relatives, not previously listed in Section 18.”

Whereas SEAD-3 defines a reportable foreign contact as any foreign national (excluding dual citizens) with whom you have:

“[c]ontinuing association…that involves bonds of affection, personal obligation, or intimate contact; or any contact with a foreign national that involves the exchange of personal information”

“Personal information” isn’t defined in SEAD-3, but supplemental DoD guidance broadly defines it as “information not reasonably expected to be accessible to the general public, nor to be willingly released to the general public by the individual,”[1]. Does this mean photos on a private social media account that you share with social media friends but not the world at large? Or a business card containing your direct business line and email address that you wouldn’t want posted on the internet? 

See the problem? These descriptions are rife with subjectivity and ambiguity. In some situations, they also conflict with each other. For example, are clearance holders supposed to only report contacts involving an exchange of personal information between initial and/or periodic reinvestigations? If so, what is the point of that? And what about intimate contacts that are not continuing and do not involve the establishment of any bonds of affection, obligation, or influence?

Changes Coming with Personnel Vetting Questionnaire (PVQ)

Clearly, the divergence in reporting requirements is a recipe for problems. Further complicating things is when SEAD-3 says to report a marriage that occurs between initial and/or periodic reinvestigations: only when you have a Top Secret clearance.

Yes, it is a surprising quirk, but that part of SEAD-3 is clear: marriage is listed as a reportable event for Top Secret clearance holders but not Secret clearance holders. Despite the unambiguous distinction, I’ve seen this nuance completely ignored by more than one security officer stridently insisting that a marriage must be self-reported by a clearance holder no matter the level of clearance. So, what is the point of having written, government-wide policy if that policy is subject to change on the whims of individual security officials and agencies without advance written notice?

It seems that officials making security policy are at least aware of these problems and attempting to remedy them to some extent by changes in language with the successor to the SF-86 form, called the Personnel Vetting Questionnaire (PVQ). In the meantime, however, clearance holders should be aware of these issues and seek guidance from security officials and/or legal counsel, as needed.


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. 


[1] Industrial Security Letter 2021-02, Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency.

Related News

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