If you play to work in any branch of the military, you may have to get a security clearance. This can even apply from a role that doesn’t deal with any access to national secrets like entry-level jobs. There are multiple levels of security clearance that are necessary for those who need to work with secrets that could cause issues for national security.
Deciding which security clearance you need is not a choice that you will have to make, but knowing what is ahead of you will help in the process. What is a background check for a security clearance and how do I get one?
Getting a security clearance
Security clearances are in-depth background checks into the criminal and credit histories of individuals who are applying to positions that deal with national secrets. The more sensitive the secrets, the more thorough the check will be.
Depending on what level you’re applying to, the checks will have to be carried out at five to 15-year intervals and can take almost a year each time. The purpose of the checks is to ensure that a federal employee is reliable, trustworthy, of good conduct and character, and loyal to the United States.
These are all important qualities in general, but when dealing with secrets that could cause long and lasting damage to the country the investigation into an applicant’s life can be a matter of life and death. This includes private companies that are working with federal agencies to use the information – the appropriate agency will have to grant security clearance to any outside employees to access the sensitive information.
If an individual is not hired by a federal agency or an outside contractor or contract organization that is working with a federal agency, it is impossible to get a security clearance.
Are all security clearances the same?
No, essentially. If you are applying for a job that requires access to Secret documents, you will have a lower security clearance threshold (and, in turn, a short security clearance check process) than if you are applying for employment with a Top Secret agency. Depending on which level of security clearance is needed, there will be different investigations.
There are three levels of positions that are available which require security clearances – non-sensitive positions, public trust positions, and national security positions. For the former category, no check aside from an automated background check will be carried out. For the latter, the process can last as long as a year.
Additionally, there four levels of security clearance that can be granted:
Confidential – this is the lowest level of security clearance that can be granted to those dealing with national security positions. These must be repeated every 15 years at least and they allow access to information that could cause damage to national security if secrets are disclosed without the proper authorization.
Secret – this is the middle band of security clearances. They must be repeated every 10 years and allow access to information that would cause serious damage to national security if disclosed.
Top Secret – this is the highest level of security clearance and must be repeated every 5 years to ensure the safety of national secrets which could cause “exceptionally grave damage” to national security.
Sensitive Compartmented Information – this security clearance stands outside of the Confidential / Secret / Top Secret bands and only concerns small pieces of information that relate to specific programs or departments. You will not get a blanket security clearance for SCI, but having already accessed SCI material will make you eligible to view other documents of that nature.
When would I need a security clearance?
Security clearances can only be granted by federal agencies, even if the applicant is working for a private company. Additionally, they will only be granted to those who are working in an area that deals with national secrets and will expire when that need to access them has passed.
The federal agency that you or the company you are working with are applying to will determine if you need to have a security clearance, but if you are working in the intelligence community, in federal law enforcement agencies, diplomatic agencies, or civilian-military agencies, then you will definitely require a high level of security clearance which could take up to a year of research to be completed.
If you want to work for the CIA, FBI, or State Department, think about the kind of conduct that you will need to show in your day to day life. As the background checks are in more detail than those that you would need for a regular background check (such as an alcohol license check), any previous misdemeanors, felonies, and arrests will show up on your criminal record.
This is true no matter how far back these crimes (or potential crimes) were committed and you will need to understand that having even one misdemeanor can make finding a job that would require security clearance very difficult.
Obtaining a security clearance happens after a successful interview period – this itself will require a background check, but the security clearance will also investigate where you have lived, whether you deal with people outside of America regularly, and any potential links or relationships that you have had in the past which might raise questions about your loyalty to the United States of America.
What is Standard Form 86?
The Questionnaire for National Security Positions is generally used to start the background security clearance check. This form will require you to share a great deal of information about yourself and those who are close to you.
Being honest and open at this stage of the process is necessary – failing to admit something that is necessary for the check could result in prosecution on the grounds of fraud, especially if that involves the failure to declare that you have committed a crime in the past which you must declare in all future job applications.
Do not lie to government agencies. The background check is extremely thorough and can access sealed and expunged entries on criminal records – lying will not work. After having filled in the form and the appropriate checks start, there will be an additional interview held to discuss what was written in the form.
This will be your opportunity to explain anything that may seem unusual, such as unsteady credit history, criminal convictions or arrests, or anything else that the interviewing agents find worthy of further explanation.
What is in a background check for a security clearance?
In addition to the SF86, your application will be processed by the State Department’s Office of Personnel Security and Suitability. This is the first step of a long process which can take over a year for the most thorough searches.
If your application is deemed complete, the State Department will then pass on the form to a case management system that will access National Agency Record Checks (which will include statistics and records of your suitability for roles) and fingerprinting.
If you are applying for a position that requires Secret access, then this will be the final section of your security clearance investigation.
This will include three agencies working together to gather information from a range of sources to pull information about your personal history, including the Defense Central Index of Investigations and the FBI Identification Division.
If there is a concern at this stage, the investigating agents may also look to the Expanded National Agency Check for further information.
If you are applying to a position that requires Top Secret clearance, then you will also have to undergo the Interview Oriented Background Investigation process (which replaced the general Background Investigation check).
This is the most up-to-date background check process and is an in-depth check into all possible dangers to national security that could come out of your past. This includes multiple agency checks, credit checks, and an interview of three Developed Character References as well as three employment references with employment record checks.
At this point, it should be clear that the process will not just be a check into your life, but also into the lives of those around you. If they cannot adequately pass the interview process, then you will not be granted a security clearance.
What can I do while my security clearance goes through?
For agents who need quick access to confidential documents and national secrets, an interim security clearance is also available. This can be granted on a short-term basis and will take a few weeks to clear after a formal security clearance request is submitted.
They generally take no longer than 90 days to clear, however. With an interim security clearance, it is possible for individuals to work with classified material in a temporary and possibly limited capacity until their full background investigation has been completed and they can begin to work fully.
Note that this is not a long-term solution and if there is any difficulty in obtaining the appropriate security clearance then it is likely that the interim security clearance will be revoked if necessary.