Types of Security Clearances and How to Obtain Them

How Many Security Clearances Are There?

Many federal government jobs and positions with private firms that perform classified contract work for the government require passing a security clearance. Currently, the most common clearances are CONFIDENTIAL, SECRET and TOP SECRET.

These investigations follow 13 guidelines for factors like allegiance, foreign preference and criminal history. Investigators also look at psychological conditions and outside activities.

What is a Security Clearance?

A security clearance is a status that allows access to classified information or restricted areas after completion of a thorough background investigation. Over four million Americans hold security clearances, with 85 percent of them working for the Department of Defense (DOD). Besides federal agencies, many private companies, non-profit organizations, and think tanks that have government contracts or grants must have employees with cleared status.

Clearances are categorized according to sensitivity and risk. Sensitive positions, such as the CIA and FBI, require the highest level of clearance. Lower tiers include Confidential, Secret, and Top Secret.

Each level requires a more thorough investigation, including a polygraph test. Depending on the sensitivity of the position, the investigation may also cover allegiance to the United States, foreign influence or preference, financial considerations, outside activities, drug and alcohol use, mental health and psychological issues, criminal record, and other matters. Most clearances are valid for 10 years. If you change jobs, you must undergo a reinvestigation.

What are the Requirements for a Security Clearance?

Many jobs require a security clearance, from engineering positions to IT roles and even administrative roles like HR. People with a clearance have demonstrated that they can handle the work and pass a rigorous background review that goes well beyond what most employers conduct.

Clearance holders play a crucial role in protecting the United States. Whether performing intelligence analysis, cybersecurity or program support, they are at the forefront of safeguarding the nation’s interests and assets.

A person’s level of clearance depends on a number of factors, including their responsibilities and duties. Positions are assigned a level of sensitivity and risk by the Department of Personnel Management (DoP). Confidential clearance is the least restrictive, providing access to information that could cause serious damage if disclosed without authorization, and requires an SF86 form and National Agency Check and Local Agency Check and credit investigation [1]. Secret clearance provides access to classified information and requires a Single Scope Background Investigation and may include a polygraph test.

What is the Process for Obtaining a Security Clearance?

In general, you need to be sponsored for a security clearance by a federal agency. The process takes on average three months to a year. Clearance investigations are conducted by trained personnel security specialists (adjudicators) within the DoD Consolidated Adjudications Services, or CAS.

The investigators will look into your background and criminal record, interview friends and family members, conduct financial and employment checks, and investigate foreign connections and travel. They will consider 13 adjudicative guidelines, such as allegiance to the United States, potential foreign influence, criminal conduct and financial considerations like heavy debt and drug use. The investigation can uncover any number of issues, however, a single incident is not typically enough to deny you a clearance. The clearance application, Standard Form 86 (SF86) is extensive and will ask questions about your past seven or ten years. You will be asked to provide a thorough list of personal identifying information, education, military service and training, financial disclosure, character references and a foreign contact questionnaire.

How do I Get a Security Clearance?

Many jobs involving access to classified or sensitive information require a security clearance. This is true for most federal positions as well as private companies and social-impact organizations that get federal contracts or grants and need to access government information and assets.

Someone other than you will determine what level of clearance you need – confidential, secret or top secret. The higher the level, the more extensive and detailed the background investigation.

The Department of Defense Consolidated Adjudications Facility issues most clearances for military, DoD civilian and contractor personnel. Other departments that issue clearances include the Department of Homeland Security (including component agencies like DIA, NSA and NGA), and the Department of Energy. Other executive branch departments, including the Departments of State and Transportation, Justice, Agriculture, Commerce, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, and Interior, as well as independent agencies such as the CIA, FBI and EPA, also issue clearances.

To obtain a clearance, you will need to complete the Office of Personnel Management’s Electronic Questionnaires for Investigation Processing (e-QIP). Make sure that you are as accurate and thorough as possible.

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