Military service often requires a security clearance. Whether you’re a military member, a federal civilian employee or a contractor, you must obtain a security clearance if you need to access classified information while working for the Department of Defense (DOD).
DOD may also require you to have a clearance to work with certain equipment or around a facility that houses sensitive equipment.
United States government agencies determine classification levels according to how much damage a compromise of the information could cause.
Security Clearance Levels
Title 22 of the Code of Federal Regulations outlines three levels of increasing damage to national security that disclosures of classified information could cause.
From highest to lowest, United States security classification levels are:
- Top Secret
At the highest level, a compromise of top secret information could cause “exceptionally grave damage” to national security. The information you need for your job determines the level of security clearance you need, and clearance levels match the classification for the highest level of information that you’re allowed to access. So, if you have a secret clearance, you might work with secret or confidential information, but you won’t work with top secret information.
But even with a confidential, secret or top secret clearance, you can’t access every piece of classified information at that level or lower. You must have a mission-related reason to access any classified information. This is called a “need to know.”
To obtain a security clearance, you will have to answer questions about your background and undergo an investigation. A top secret clearance requires the most intense vetting.
To read more about applying for a Top Secret clearance with Sensitive Compartmented Information (SCI) access, you can check out our guide to the process.
Read on to learn about some typical grounds for security clearance denials and rejections.
Applying for a Security Clearance
If your military job requires it, your agency will sponsor you for a security clearance. Your organization kicks off the process by sending you a notification to fill out your SF-86 in e-QIP, the Electronic Questionnaires for Investigations Processing (e-QIP).
After you fill out the SF-86, your background investigation begins.
The Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency processes security clearances for all DOD employees and military members.
DCSA investigators search law enforcement databases and credit reports. They may talk to your friends, colleagues, landlords and even your ex-spouse.
The paperwork is lengthy and the investigation may take months to complete. The SF-86 alone is 136 pages, assuming you don’t need to file extra pages.
Your agency might grant you an interim security clearance while you await a final determination on your security clearance.
Security Clearance Denials vs. Returned or Rejected Applications
If you fail to correctly fill out your security clearance package, your agency might return it to you for corrections. They should also explain why they returned the application and give you adequate time to fix any issues.
This does not mean they are denying your clearance. Once you re-submit the package, your clearance investigation will resume.
Top Administrative Reasons for a Security Clearance Application Rejection (Not a Clearance Denial)
DCSA rejected 24,999 security clearance applications for administrative reasons from Oct.1, 2020 to Sept. 30, 2021.
From October 2021 to June 2022, DCSA administratively rejected 1,331 applications.
Here are the most common security clearance application mistakes that result in a rejected application, according DCSA spokesman Christopher Bentley:
- Missing fingerprints
- Missing state forms about childcare cases
- Information discrepancies
To get your application through the door, be sure to submit all requested documentation and follow all security clearance application instructions.
Security Clearance Denials
Your agency may disqualify you from holding a clearance. This is different from them rejecting your application for administrative reasons.
Derogatory information on certain “areas of concern” can prevent you from getting a security clearance, according to the National Security Adjudicative Guidelines, which govern the issuance of security clearances.
These areas include:
- Allegiance to the United States (Guideline A)
- Foreign Influence (Guideline B)
- Foreign Preference (Guideline C)
- Sexual Behavior (Guideline D)
- Personal Conduct (Guideline E)
- Financial Considerations (Guideline F)
- Alcohol Consumption (Guideline G)
- Drug Involvement (Guideline H)
- Psychological Conditions (Guideline I)
- Criminal Conduct (Guideline J)
- Handling Protected Information (Guideline K)
- Outside Activities (Guideline L)
- Use of Information Technology Systems (Guideline M)
Review the Adjudicative Guidelines to see how that area of concern may impact your clearance eligibility and what specific behaviors could disqualify you from a obtaining a clearance.
The guidelines also include mitigating criteria, which investigators may consider when determining your clearance eligibility.
For example, Guideline D stipulates that some sexual behavior might reflect a lack of judgment and discretion and could make you susceptible to coercion.
Examples of behavior that might disqualify you for a clearance include a history of criminal sexual acts, compulsive, public or high-risk sexual behavior. But, if this behavior occurred before or during adolescence, investigators might consider this mitigating circumstance and still grant your clearance.
Feedback from co-workers, colleagues, family and friends can also be critical in these investigations. Even if a court hasn’t convicted you of criminal activity, you still might face an issue if security clearance investigators uncover information that casts doubt on your reliability while talking to your friends.
The Most Common Reasons for Security Clearance Denial
DCSA said it denied 2,716 security clearance applications from October 2021 to July 2022.
Here are the top reasons DCSA denied or revoked security clearance applications during this time period, according to DCSA spokesman Christopher Bentley:
- Financial Considerations– 29%
- Criminal Conduct– 19.4%
- Personal Conduct – 16.4%
- Drug Involvement and Substance Misuse– 11.1%
- Alcohol Consumption– 8.7%
From October 2018 to June 2022, clearance rejections for financial considerations occurred substantially more often than any other reason, according to Bentley.
Previously, criminal conduct was the most likely reason you’d lose your security clearance, according to a 2014 Government Accountability Office Report.
Here is a breakdown of the top five reasons the DOD revoked 9,302 clearances in 2013:
- 29.8% (2,768 total) for criminal conduct
- 18.2% (1,697 total) for drug involvement
- 18.2% (1,694 total) for personal conduct
- 16.1% (1,495 total) for financial considerations
- 8.5% (795 total) for alcohol consumption
Financial Considerations for Security Clearance Holders
Of all the things on this list, you may be most surprised that financial irresponsibility can cost you your clearance.
What kinds of financial trouble might be red flags in the security clearance process? According to Guideline F, Financial Considerations, issues of concern include:
- A history of poor credit
- Deceptive or illegal financial activities, including theft, embezzlement, tax evasion and other financial breach-of-trust problems.
- A history of unpaid debt and late payments
- Unexplained affluence
- Financial problems from gambling.
- Financial problems stemming from substance abuse.
There are two reasons why poor finances can disqualify you from a clearance.
First, they can indicate personal irresponsibility, which may raise questions about your ability to safeguard national security information. Second, living outside of your means can make you susceptible to coercion.
As with the other areas of concern, adjudicators might consider certain criteria that can mitigate risk factors. For example, if you accrued debt due to circumstances beyond your control (like medical bills) or are receiving financial counseling and repaying your debt, you may still be eligible for a security clearance.
If you have derogatory financial information, the best thing to do is begin fixing your finances before applying for a clearance. Also, tell your investigators what steps you have taken to get your finances on track.
Whatever you do, don’t be dishonest about your debt since, under Guideline E, Personal Conduct, dishonesty can disqualify you for a clearance, especially if it occurs “during national security investigative or adjudicative processes.”
You can read more about what might disqualify you from having a clearance in our article on Security Clearance Disqualifiers.
Seeking Help for Mental Health Issues Won’t Endanger Your Clearance
DCSA spokesperson Christopher Bentley said DCSA supports the DOD-wide initiative to destigmatize mental health.
“This program has provided hard data which supports that seeking mental health care is one of the most common ways that psychological concerns under Guideline I for Psychological Conditions are mitigated,” Bentley said in an email.
“Less than 1% of cases are denied/revoked for a Guideline I concern.”
Don’t be afraid to seek mental health guidance when needed. You may have to disclose some information about mental health care on your SF-86, but DOD treats these actions favorably.
What You Should Know About Security Clearance Investigations
You can prepare for the security clearance investigation process by gathering all the required information to fill out your SF-86.
Familiarize yourself with the questionnaire well in advance of submission, so you have time to gather the relevant information.
- Residential History: Just because you have been in the military for the past ten years, don’t assume that you won’t have to provide all your addresses during that time frame, even if you deployed to support a military operation. If you get your products from Amazon or other online marketplaces, you can check your account history to refresh yourself on hard-to-remember temporary addresses. You will also have to provide names and contact information for people who knew you at each address. Again, this applies whether you were stateside or overseas, even if you deployed.
- Personal and Employment History: You must also provide information on jobs, education and other factors, sometimes going back ten years.
- Legal Issues: For certain criminal offenses, you will have to report incidents that occurred at any point in your life.
- Financial Information: You must accurately account for any current debt and foreign financial interests. You must also give investigators permission to run your credit. Use credit card statements, bank accounts and loan documents when needed. These days, most of this information is available when you access your accounts online. Take your time to account for your finances on your SF-86 accurately. Investigators might perceive discrepancies between what they find on your credit report and what you report to be indications of dishonesty.
Finally, don’t turn in your application until it is complete. Your sponsoring agency might push you to submit the information as soon as possible, but you can speak to your security manager if you have problems tracking down information.
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