After a decade representing federal employees and contractors in the security clearance process, and several years before that conducting security clearance background investigations, I’ve read an awful lot of SF-86 forms and spoken with plenty of clearance applicants and references. I’ve learned a thing or two about human nature and perception.

One of those takeaways involves people who list prominent members of their community, the “big boss” – or my personal favorite, celebrities – as references. It happens more often than you might think. And it wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing, except that usually the so-called reference has only a vague notion of the clearance applicant’s identity, or none at all.

I can recall interviewing plenty of people as an investigator who couldn’t provide even the most basic details about the individual who listed them on the SF-86 as someone who “knows them well.” But never mind that pesky problem: the reference was a C-suite executive, an elected official, or a military general! The mere fact that the clearance-applicant existed in the same orbit was apparently supposed to evidence their security-worthiness.

On one occasion, I interviewed the spouse of a celebrity – who went to high school with the clearance applicant and had not seen them in years. Yes, it was fun to visit the reference’s home; but was the interview useful from a security perspective? Not so much.

Most of the time, the intent behind listing references like these is innocent enough. It seems to stem from the same theory behind listing “impressive” people as references on a job application. Who wouldn’t want to hire someone so well-connected?

But security clearance applications are an entirely different animal. Unlike the job reference who might provide a positive albeit generic assessment as a courtesy for an acquaintance, the security clearance reference is asked far more specific and personal questions about the applicant. The façade of closeness quickly crumbles with just a few “I don’t know” answers. This results in one of a few conclusions by security officials: the applicant is naïve, trying to hide something, or a tool.

I sometimes found it to be the latter. We all want to look good, but some people try so hard and for so long that they start believing their own act while not realizing how it comes across to others who aren’t as impressed with them. Ego isn’t a reason to deny a security clearance, but it can wind-up backfiring in other ways – like delaying the background investigation due to insufficient reference coverage. And looking like a tool never endeared a clearance applicant to an adjudicator.

On the other hand, if you are actually close with a prominent person, there is nothing wrong with using them as a reference. In most cases, however, the identity of the reference is secondary to the depth of the relationship and quality of the recommendation. The close friend who works in retail will almost always be a better reference than the city council-member who considers you an acquaintance. The retired neighbor who sees you daily will almost always be superior to the CEO who knows your name from emails.

There are occasional, fact-specific exceptions to this rule (typically, to rebut or mitigate specific allegations of misconduct that the reference can speak to) that can be advised upon by competent legal counsel. But the general rule of thumb remains that a reference’s resume is secondary to how well they truly know the applicant.

 

 

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 https://www.berrylegal.com/.