Security Clearance Investigations

Many federal jobs, and some private sector positions that work with the government require a security clearance. The process examines a person’s criminal, financial and personal conduct to ensure that they are reliable, trustworthy and of good character.

Getting a clearance can take months. The most common problems arise during the adjudication phase if serious issues are discovered.

Background Investigation

A security clearance investigation is a requirement before you can be granted access to classified information or work in certain sensitive positions. The investigators review your past and current life, including family relationships and foreign contacts. They also look at financial delinquencies, a pattern of criminal conduct and substance abuse. The information is evaluated in light of thirteen factors determined by the Department of Defense. The investigators may recommend granting or refusing a clearance.

The investigation starts with your application and the SF-86. This form requires personal identifying information and a detailed history of employment, residences and education. It also asks for names and contact information of people who know you well. It is important to fill these sections out carefully, as failure to do so can delay the clearance process. It is especially important to list accurate postal zip codes, as errors can cause investigation materials to be sent to the wrong investigative office.

When the initial investigation is complete, the DCSA decides whether or not to grant a clearance. They review the evidence and make a recommendation to the applicant’s PSAB. If the investigator recommends denying the clearance, an individual can choose to submit a written appeal with supporting documents directly to their PSAB or request a “Personal Appearance” before a DOHA AJ. During the appearance, the individual is allowed to explain their case (with or without a representative), present new evidence and submit witnesses. The AJ evaluates the evidence and makes a written clearance recommendation to their PSAB.

If the AJ denies the clearance, the PSAB can choose to deny it or to grant it subject to conditions or limitations. In either case, the AJ must provide their rationale. Normally, a clearance is denied for serious financial problems, making intentional false statements in connection with the clearance investigation or having recent illegal drug involvement. Clearances can be reinstated after a period of time following an investigation, if there is a national security suitability determination and a request for reinvestigation.


The SSBI is the most extensive and time consuming type of investigation required for people seeking a security clearance at the Top Secret level or above. It includes a national agency check that queries various Department of Defense agencies, FBI and other federal databases for derogatory information. It also includes a spouse/cohabitant check that identifies allegiance, associations, financial issues, relationships and patterns of behavior. It can also include a polygraph examination.

Once the SSBI is complete, a federal security officer assesses the results based on thirteen factors which cover allegiance, criminal activity and personal conduct. Clearance is granted or denied at the end of this phase.

If a clearance is denied, the adjudicator issues a Statement of Reasons (SOR) which details the reasons why. Applicants have the opportunity to respond to the SOR in writing and submit evidence that refutes, explains or mitigates the SOR’s allegations. A contractor applicant can request a hearing before a DOHA AJ and be represented by an attorney or personal representative at the review or appeal stage. DOHA Department Counsel can represent federal civilian and military personnel during the review or appeal stages but not at a hearing before a DOHA AO.

A person can still receive a clearance, even if the SOR contains derogatory information, if they successfully demonstrate that their allegiance to the United States and their conduct have been satisfactorily mitigated. Generally, this can be done by presenting a successful case during a security interview or by submitting a written rebuttal to the SOR.

The only exception to this is when a person has access to Sensitive Compartmented Information (SCI). In that case, the SCI must be read in or indoctrinated into a SAP before clearance is granted. A person can also appeal a clearance denial or revocation to a three-member Personnel Security Appeals Board (PSAB). This is not done through DOHA and the applicant can only be represented by an attorney at this stage.

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