Do you need to know how to get a TS/SCI security clearance? “TS/SCI” stands for Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmentalized Information and while some may confuse the “SCI” designation as an additional security clearance, it is not.
What is it? It’s an additional screening process applied to those who have jobs requiring access to SCI, which can include data, hardware, certain controlled-access areas, etc. Not all who are vetted for top-secret clearances are approved to handle or access Sensitive Compartmented Information.
Only those with a need to have the clearance for specific duties involving SCI will be screened. Your supervisor will likely be the first point of contact for such requirements where applicable.
Top Secret/SCI Clearances
Top secret clearance requires the most rigorous background check and the SCI designation means there’s an elevated risk of potential harm to national security; all who require SCI access should be mindful of this going into the clearance screening process.
What you need to know going into your TS/SCI screening includes the fact that the applicant cannot request or initiate this process. This is an employer-driven investigation that the government, contractor, private sector company, or even military unit will order on behalf of the service member or employee.
The process of your employer or command initiating the background investigation is known as sponsorship. There are several steps in the journey toward a top-secret security clearance with access to SCI. They include:
- Background investigation (requiring the applicant to complete an SF-86/Questionnaire for National Security Positions form)
- Clearance interviews
- Polygraph test (for some applicants, not all)
The term “background check” sounds less intrusive than it might feel when you are filling out the paperwork. In this case, applicants should come to this procedure knowing they will be required to provide roughly ten years of data on past addresses, phone numbers, relationships, affiliations, jobs, and more.
Some areas don’t require a full ten-year history but may require seven years or more.
The applicant’s portion of the background check–filling out the forms and supplying the personal history and other information–is only the beginning. Once that information leaves the applicant, investigators will cross-reference that information with credit reports, public records, interviews of friends and family members, etc.
You may be required in some cases to provide more than 10 years of information. All overseas travel, contacts, activities, and related information will be relevant, and you should expect your background investigators to check files at federal databases such as the FBI or ATF for additional information where applicable.
If you want to know how to obtain a TS/SCI clearance, the first thing you should keep in mind is that anything less than 100% truthful answers will be detrimental to the approval of your clearance.
Don’t knowingly omit information (it will be discovered one way or another through credit report checks, family member interviews, etc.) and do not fabricate information.
Remember that the investigation’s methodology includes comparing your personal statements to the statements of others (as well as public records, public databases, and other data) to determine the accuracy of your information.
Security Clearance Interviews and Polygraphs
You may be required to participate in one or more interviews as part of your background investigation. This is not something to be nervous about, especially if you are dedicated to being 100% forthright about past activities and other issues that may affect your clearance.
Security clearance screening, even at the top secret level and in pursuit of an SCI designation, handles “red flag” situations and innocuous things that may seem like red flags during the investigation on a case-by-case basis.
There is no boilerplate procedure in such cases–the investigators need to know the specific facts of your background, the context those facts exist in, and other factors that could play in the applicant’s favor even if there is a question about past relations, activities, choices, etc.
Polygraph tests are not unheard of; those who work in controlled areas and and around SCI may be subject to them, depending on the level and duration of the work. In any case, the polygraph is a part of the procedure you should take seriously, but not become overly concerned about.
Retesting due to inconclusive polygraph results is not unusual in certain instances, and you can never assume the reasons for such retesting have to do with the applicant–technical difficulties can be just as much to blame in such cases depending on circumstances.
If you are wondering how to obtain your TS/SCI clearance and are worried about a lie detector test, it’s helpful to do some research on polygraph testing in general. You may find that the subject matter areas of the questions you are administered put you at ease–the worst part about a polygraph test is the unknown.
That’s usually what makes people nervous going in, but you can reasonably expect certain types of questions depending on the job you need the clearance for. You may be asked about any of the following:
- Intentional compromise of classified information
- “Secret contact” with someone from another country
- Involvement crime
- Illegal drug use
- Falsification of security forms
At some stage toward the end of your investigation, there will be an adjudication of your TS/SCI clearance application.
Your approval or denial of a security clearance will depend in part on your perceived loyalty to the United States, the consistency of the information you have provided, the findings of the investigation compared to your statements regarding same, and a review of any credit problems, minor legal run-ins, or other factors.
You will not be able to perform duties that require TS/SCI clearance until the process has been completed. Applicants are not waived where Top Secret / Sensitive Compartmentalized Information is concerned. In general you must have the appropriate level of clearance to do the work.
That said, in some cases interim clearances may be approved–this is often handled case-by-case. You will need to ask your command support staff or supervisor what is possible in your position based on the nature and sensitivity of the work. It’s not safe to assume such provisional measures will be approved in your specific case.
After The Investigation and Clearance Approval
Security clearances are not granted for life. You can lose a clearance because of your conduct on or off-duty, you can have clearances suspended while such issues are investigated, and you can have a clearance revoked after a periodic reinvestigation.
You should not assume that your clearance is “bulletproof” once obtained. If you are reassigned, if you PCS or have a break in military service, you may be required to be investigated all over again depending on circumstances. SCI access is on a strictly need-to-have basis. If you transfer into a job that does not require your SCI designation you may find it necessary to reapply for it later if it is once more required.
Joe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News