Requirements for Security Clearance
Any person whose job involves access to classified information is required to have a security clearance. In the United States, security clearances can only be issued by the federal government. Clearances may not be requested by individuals; they must be requested by an employer who does business with the government and has a need to access classified information. Clearances for non-military contractors are managed by the Defense Industrial Security Clearance Office (DISCO.)
There are three levels of information security: Confidential, Secret and Top Secret. Confidential, the lowest level, is usually the easiest one to get. Once issued, the Confidential clearance must be renewed through a reinvestigation process every 15 years. The Secret clearance requires a more thorough investigation and must be re-investigated every 10 years. Top Secret, the highest level, must be re-investigated every 5 years.
To begin the application process, the employer must submit a request to the Joint Personnel Adjudication System on behalf of an employee who has already been hired, or who has been offered a job contingent on the security clearance. The employee then fills out an online application using the Electronic Questionnaire for Investigations Processing (eQIP.) To prepare for the online form, it is recommended that the applicant fill out the paper form SF86 – Questionnaire for National Security Positions, which requires extensive background information including employment history and residence information going back seven years, as well as character references, foreign activities, marital history and financial information. Once the application is accepted, it is passed to DISCO for the investigation phase.
The investigation will include computerized checks of national databases such as those maintained by the FBI and the Office of Personnel Management. It will also include checks of local agencies in the applicant’s jurisdiction for criminal history, verification of residence information, school and employment records. A complete check of the applicant’s financial history will also be conducted.. For Top Secret clearances, the investigation will conduct field interviews of references, including coworkers, friends, teachers, neighbors and others. A physical check of court records, employer documents, rental agreements and similar documents will be performed. An investigator will also interview the applicant.
When the investigation phase is complete, the application enters the adjudication phase. Adjudication is conducted by the specific military or government branch responsible for the classified information. Any evidence of a serious criminal record, an addiction to a controlled substance, mental incompetency or a dishonorable discharge from military service will result in an automatic rejection of the application. If any other derogatory evidence is revealed by the investigation, the adjudicator may request additional information or evidence from the applicant. Before a rejection, the application will be reviewed by a higher authority within the branch. The applicant has the right to appeal a rejection.
The time required to process a security clearance application varies from several months to over a year for a Top Secret clearance rating. This is due mainly to a backlog of requests and insufficient resources to process applications. Any errors in the application, including minor mistakes such as incorrect ZIP codes, misspellings or typographic mistakes can also delay the process.