The conventional wisdom in the national security sector is that eligibility for access to classified U.S. government information (commonly called a “security clearance”) requires three things: employment with a federal agency or cleared contractor; a bona fide need-to-know; and a favorably adjudicated background investigation at the appropriate level.[1]

However, as is often the case with so-called conventional wisdom, that isn’t entirely accurate. The oft-repeated “employment” requirement is a mischaracterization of the actual requirement of “sponsorship.” But what is sponsorship if not employment? And isn’t any distinction just semantics given the simultaneous need-to-know requirement?

An obscure FBI program called “State and Local Law Enforcement Executives and Elected Officials Security Clearance Initiative” provides an answer. Established in the wake of September 11, 2001, the program provides a means for the government to clear – and share classified information with – state and local officials who would otherwise have no means of legally receiving relevant public safety information under a federal or cleared-industry “employment” requirement for security clearance.

That could include, for example, classified information about hostile actors targeting local utilities with malicious cyber-attacks. It could also include intelligence on foreign agents conducting influence operations against or attempting to compromise local government officials – like then-city councilmember Eric Swalwell before his election to congress.

Sponsorship Doesn’t Always Equal Employment

The Initiative is a great example of why sponsorship isn’t necessarily synonymous with employment, but it isn’t the only one. Separate federal-state-local law enforcement partnerships like Joint Terrorism Task Forces (JTTF’s) and those designed to combat illicit drug trafficking and arms sales similarly rely on the ability of detailed non-federal officials to obtain U.S. government security clearances. That has occasionally resulted in tension when federal and local enforcement priorities or views on civil liberties collide. Case-in-point: San Francisco, which pulled its police officers off an FBI JTTF amid claims by activists that participation was inviting violations of local laws.

But there is also a third, and significantly more common, means through which those not directly working for the feds or in cleared contracting can obtain a security clearance: the National Guard. Under federal law, state National Guard members work under authority of their respective state’s governor unless federalized by the president during a national emergency or deployment. Imagine if those soldiers were required to first apply for and obtain security clearances before being federalized; that would severely impact the Guard’s readiness posture and prove disastrous for their ability to respond quickly when needed. To avoid that, officers in the National Guard and those working in certain occupational specialties like intelligence, security, and CBRN require U.S. government security clearances – just like their regular military counterparts.

Look Outside the Normal Channels for Sponsorship

All of this may seem like Jeopardy trivia for national security wonks, but there is a real-world application that may prove valuable for some current or aspiring clearance holders. Specifically, the ability to obtain a security clearance outside the usual channels may help increase a job applicant’s marketability in the cleared space and/or help ensure continuity of clearance (i.e., the ability to quickly obtain a new cleared job) in the event of unforeseen scenarios like employer downsizing or loss-of-contract in the government contracting world. That’s a side hustle that does good for your community and your career.



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] Additional requirements include signing a non-disclosure agreement and participating in a security briefing; however, those are largely ministerial in nature and rarely present an impediment to obtaining the clearance unless the individual refuses cooperation.

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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