TS/SCI stands for Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmented Information. For a TS/SCI clearance, the Department of Defense extensively vets military members and civilian employees. You can read about average security clearance processing timelines in our article here.
Here’s what you need to know about getting a TS/SCI security clearance.
Security Clearance Levels
For members of the Department of Defense (DOD), there are three levels of security clearance:
- Top Secret
These clearance levels correspond to classification designations of national security information. From Confidential to Top Secret, unauthorized disclosure can cause damage, serious damage, or exceptionally grave damage to national security, respectively.
Your organization will sponsor you for a security clearance based on the level of access you need for your job. A Top Secret clearance entails the most rigorous vetting since breaches of this classification level can significantly damage the United States.
What is SCI?
SCI is Sensitive Compartmented Information.
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) defines SCI as classified information “concerning or derived from intelligence sources, methods or analytical processes that is required to be protected within formal access control systems established by the DNI.”
SCI can mean special collections systems, analytical processing, targeting and other information requiring special protections and unique handling protocols.
SCI clearance investigations involve an additional screening process. Not everyone with a Top Sectet (TS) clearance has SCI access. You’ll only be eligible for SCI screening if you have specific duties requiring access to this information.
Your agency will determine if you need this access.
Eligibility for Top Secret/SCI Clearances
To be eligible for a Top Secret clearance with SCI access, you must meet certain criteria. Your agency also must sponsor you for access.
Your agency will initiate your clearance by sending you a notification to complete your SF-86, Questionnaire for National Security Positions in e-QIP. Filling out the SF-86 is the first step in obtaining your Top Secret Clearance.
The Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency (DCSA) processes and adjudicates clearances for DOD personnel. Here are the steps of this process:
- You receive a notification to fill out your SF-86 in e-QIP.
- You fill out and submit the SF-86.
- DCSA conducts your background investigation.
- DCSA sends the results of the investigation and adjudication to your sponsoring agency.
- Your agency makes any final decisions.
- If applicable, your agency enrolls you in continuous vetting to ensure you continue to meet security clearance requirements,
To obtain a security clearance of any level, you must be a U.S. citizen. DOD may give non-citizens access under limited circumstances but only on information up to a Secret level.
Security Clearance Background Checks
Some aspects of your background check include incidents that may have occurred at any point in your life.
For example, page 99 of the SF-86 has questions about whether law enforcement ever charged you with a felony or an alcohol or drug offense at any point in your life. You must disclose all incidents of these and other qualifying activities even if the authorities sealed or expunged your record or a court never convicted you of a crime.
Most of the other questions ask you to provide information going back seven to 10 years of your life. You must disclose financial information, including bankruptcies going back seven years and provide your address history for the past ten years.
Applicants should begin filling out the SF-86 knowing they will be required to provide roughly 10 years of data on past addresses, phone numbers, relationships, affiliations, jobs and more.
Once you submit the SF-86 through e-QIP, investigators will cross-reference that information with credit reports, public records and interviews of friends, family members and co-workers. They may even interview your ex.
All overseas travel, contacts, activities and related information are relevant to the investigation. You should expect your background investigators to conduct a records check of federal databases, such as those of the FBI or ATF.
Keep in mind that dishonest answers on the SF-86 or during a security clearance interview can disqualify you from a clearance. You can read about this and other potential reasons for disqualification in our article on security clearance disqualifiers. Dishonest answers include knowingly omitting information.
Remember that the investigation’s methodology includes comparing your statements to the statements of others (as well as public records, public databases and other data) to determine the accuracy of the information you provide.
Security Clearance Interviews and Polygraphs
In addition to speaking with your current and former associates, DCSA investigators might interview you. Don’t be nervous about this.
As with the SF-86, just be forthright when answering their questions.
According to the Adjudicative Guidelines, investigators judge your ability to safeguard national security information using a “whole-person concept.” That means they will consider your reliability over your entire lifetime. A few mistakes will usually not disqualify you for a clearance.
Depending on your duty position, your agency may also require you to submit to a polygraph examination. If you refuse, you will not be able to fill that position, according to DOD’s polygraph procedures.
As with the SF-86 and security interviews, answer all questions honestly. The best way to pass any lie detector test is to not lie. The polygraph itself may feel uncomfortable, and you may not understand why the polygrapher is asking you certain questions.
Your agency might also ask you to take another polygraph if the first one yields inconclusive results. Don’t stress about this. Unless you are lying about being involved in espionage, terrorism or sabotage against the United States, the odds of passing your polygraph are overwhelmingly in your favor.
Here are some areas polygraphers might ask you about during their investigation:
- Security violations
- Undisclosed foreign contacts
They may also ask you questions about criminal activity, including drug use.
Don’t worry about studying up on the polygraph before you take it. This could backfire and make it harder to pass the test.
“There is a great deal of unverified information on the internet about the polygraph,” according to a polygraph brochure on IntelligenceCareers.gov, which represents multiple agencies in the defense community, including the Defense Intelligence Agency.
The brochure offered the following tips about taking the polygraph:
- Get a good night’s sleep
- Take your normal medications
- Follow your usual routine
- Don’t skip meals
- Come with an open mind
- Know it’s a unique experience each time
- Arrive early
Following these tips are the best way to prepare for the polygraph. And, of course, the number one tip is: be honest.
Security Clearance Adjudication
Near the end of your investigation, DCSA will adjudicate your clearance application. Your sponsoring agency formally decides to grant or deny the security clearance.
If DCSA deems you loyal to the United States and reliable in your conduct, you will likely receive a favorable security clearance determination.
Receiving a Top Secret clearance with SCI access can take a long time, especially if you have spent significant time overseas. This makes it harder to verify the background information you supplied on your SF-86.
In some cases, your agency might grant you an interim clearance while you wait for the final decision. You can even receive interim SCI access while DCSA completes your investigation, though this is less likely if your investigators are in possession of derogatory information.
If your agency denies your interim clearance with SCI access, this does not mean you won’t ultimately receive a favorable determination. To qualify for an interim clearance, DCSA must be able to verify some basic info about you. Until they can do so, you won’t receive an interim clearance.
After the Investigation and Clearance Approval
DOD agencies grant security clearances for specific periods of time. You will periodically undergo a reinvestigation to renew your clearance. Between reinvestigations, your agency will continuously evaluate you to make sure you remain an acceptable security risk.
Your agency can revoke or suspend your clearance if it receives reliable information that something in your circumstances or conduct has changed significantly and indicates that you may not be trustworthy.
Make sure you report significant life changes to avoid any questions about your suitability for a security clearance.
As a clearance holder, your agency requires you to self-report the following to your security manager as they occur:
- Changes in personal status, including cohabitation, engagement, and marriage
- Foreign travel
- Foreign contacts
- Loss or compromise of classified information
- Financial problems
Your security manager or agency will have routine procedures for updating this information. Much of the time, you can do this digitally by updating your agency’s database with a new foreign contact, for example.
Finally, remember that the government does not issue you a clearance for life. If you change jobs or have a break in service, your new agency may require you to start the process over again.