Interrogatories – legal jargon for formal, written questions to an opposing party – have long been part of the government’s playbook in Department of Defense security clearance and public trust adjudications. Now, other federal agencies like the Department of Homeland Security and Office of Personnel Management are increasingly following suit.

Security clearance and public trust (re)applicants should take notice of this development. Receiving a letter from personnel security officials asking for “clarification” or “additional information”, as interrogatory letters are often worded, may seem innocuous, but appearances can be deceiving. Similarly, the procedural machinations of adjudication may seem obscure and irrelevant to most applicants, but they can actually have a major impact on outcome.

Part of the reason for this is what the interrogatories themselves signify. Our anecdotal evidence suggests that perhaps only 5-10% of all security clearance and public trust applicants receive interrogatories. If you’re receiving them, it’s a sign that your case is already under extra scrutiny.

Unfortunately, many recipients don’t treat interrogatories as a warning sign of potential trouble. In my experience, far too many applicants respond carelessly and without an understanding of why certain questions are being asked. In doing so, these folks start the process of sinking their own ship by locking themselves (and any legal counsel they may subsequently hire) into problematic statements or defenses that lack merit. Some ill-construed responses actually compound problems by introducing entirely new issues of adjudicative significance into the case. I call this the “I only snorted cocaine because I was drunk” defense.

As a lawyer, I’ll be the first to tell you that lawyers are not the antidote to every problem in life. But, if you’re in receipt of interrogatories from personnel security officials, taking a “wait and see” approach to retaining legal counsel is likely to be a costly mistake that you can’t unwind.

Lawyers are not miracle workers and are constrained in their ability to obtain favorable outcomes for their clients by, among other things, their client’s prior statements, admissions, and defenses. These days, most savvy security clearance holders and applicants know to retain legal counsel for responding to a Statement of Reasons or representation in an appeal hearing; but the ultimate goal is to avoid those time-consuming stressors and expenses in the first place. Going it alone for the first stage of the case and then hiring a lawyer later is the literal definition of self-sabotage.

Responding to interrogatories is a chance to make your case for a favorable adjudication before a final decision is made regarding denial or revocation. Take that gift for what it is while avoiding a response that could inadvertently make things worse. Retain competent and experienced legal counsel at the outset.

 

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. 

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 https://www.berrylegal.com/.