Security clearances are essential for many federal service jobs and military occupational specialties.
Whether you are a military or civilian member of the Army, Air Force, Navy, Coast Guard, Marine Corps or Space Force, you’ll need a security clearance to access the classified information you need to do your job.
Getting a clearance is not automatic. Security clearance applicants must undergo a background check and screening process. The Department of Defense (DOD) will vet you to ensure they can rely upon you to safeguard national security information.
The security clearance process is comprehensive. The government requires you to provide information about everything from old addresses you may have forgotten (your Amazon account information can be handy for this) to contact details of ex-spouses and former colleagues.
You must also disclose aspects of your financial situation, including foreign assets, debt and credit history. Investigators will also ask about interactions with law enforcement, including traffic violations.
You will fill out an SF-86, Questionnaire for National Security Positions to provide this information. Clearance investigators use this document to begin your background investigation.
If you are a federal employee, contractor or military member, the Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency (DCSA) investigates and adjudicates your clearance.
DOD can disqualify you from holding a clearance if certain things in your background or current situation indicate you are not an acceptable security risk.
Three Levels Of Security Clearance
Depending on the level of information you need to do your job, your agency may sponsor you for one of three security clearance levels:
- Top Secret.
At any level, the security clearance granted allows the military member to access things classified at the level the worker holds or below. Top Secret is the highest clearance granted.
Understanding the clearance process is key to avoiding rejection of your security clearance.
The “Whole Person Concept”
Even if you have made some mistakes, there are few automatic disqualifications to the security clearance process.
According to the National Security Adjudicative Guidelines that govern security clearance eligibility, investigators use the “whole person concept” to determine security clearance eligibility.
The guidelines define the whole person concept as “an examination of a sufficient period and a careful weighing of a number of variables of an individual’s life to make an affirmative determination that the individual is an acceptable security risk.”
In other words, getting a security clearance depends on your overall dependability and not one or two mistakes you may have made in the past.
Automatic Disqualifiers for Security Clearances
So how many things can automatically disqualify you from a clearance? Just one thing: being an ongoing drug user or addict.
Passed in 2008, the Bond Amendment prohibits drug users from holding security clearances. You can find more about the Bond Amendment in Appendix B of the Adjudicative Guidelines.
Under the Bond Amendment, adjudicators must find you are a current “unlawful user of a controlled substance” or addicted to a controlled substance to disqualify you from a clearance.
Here’s how the Bond Amendment defines an addiction:
- Habitual use of a narcotic drug in a way that endangers public morals, health, safety or welfare
- Loss of self-control over an addiction
Under the Bond Amendment, applicants classified as drug users or addicts can not receive a security clearance waiver.
If you formerly used controlled substances but are not a current user or addict, make sure you disclose this information on your security clearance application.
Like everything else in your life, security clearance adjudicators might consider this as they vet your “whole person” for a clearance, but it will not automatically disqualify you.
Potential Disqualifiers for SCI, SAP and RD Programs
The Bond Amendment also has criteria for disqualifying individuals from receiving access to special programs.
Even if you can get a security clearance, the government might not grant you access to certain protected data, such as sensitive compartmented information (SCI), special access programs (SAP) and restricted data (RD).
The Bond Amendment disqualifies the following individuals from receiving access to SCI, SAP and RD data:
- People who have been convicted of a crime and incarcerated for more than one year
- Individuals dishonorably discharged from the United States military
- Individuals deemed to be mentally incompetent by a court or agencies through formal proceedings
DOD can approve individuals in those above categories for security clearances, but under the Bond Amendment, it might not grant them access to specially protected SCI, SAP or RD information.
However, the Bond Amendment does allow waivers for individuals falling in these categories. Unless their agency formally approves the waiver, an individual can not have access to SCI, SAP or RD information.
Appendix B of the Adjudicative Guidelines contains information on the waiver approval process under the Bond Amendment.
Areas of Concern for Security Clearance Investigations
Besides items covered by the Bond Amendment, there are plenty of other behaviors that can stop you from getting a clearance.
When DCSA adjudicates your clearance, they focus on “areas of concern,” which the Adjudicative Guidelines define and explain. These are potential areas of concern, along with the guidelines for each:
- Guideline A: Allegiance to the United States
- Guideline B: Foreign Influence
- Guideline C: Foreign Preference
- Guideline D: Sexual Behavior
- Guideline E: Personal Conduct
- Guideline F: Financial Considerations
- Guideline G: Alcohol Consumption
- Guideline H: Drug Involvement
- Guideline I: Psychological Conditions
- Guideline J: Criminal Conduct
- Guideline K: Handling Protected Information
- Guideline L: Outside Activities
- Guideline M: Use of Information Technology Systems
Each guideline explains why the concern matters, potentially disqualifying criteria and circumstances that could mitigate these concerns.
For example, Guideline A, Allegiance to the United States, notes that “the willingness to safeguard classified or sensitive information is in doubt if there is any reason to suspect an individual’s allegiance to the United States.” This represents the government’s concern about your suitability for a clearance.
One of the criteria under this guideline that could disqualify you from a clearance is an association with someone attempting to sabotage the United States. So even if you aren’t involved in those activities, adjudicators could disqualify you from holding a security clearance if your friend is.
According to Guideline A, a potential mitigating circumstance is if you were unaware of your friend’s involvement in activities against the United States. This means security adjudicators could look past your association with your friend and still award you a clearance.
Of course, once you know your friend’s involvement in sabotage attempts, you should avoid future contact if you want to keep your clearance.
The Cardinal Rule for Security Clearances: Always Be Honest
Even if you worry something in your background might disqualify you from a clearance, be honest when filling out your SF-86 and in interviews with investigators.
If you lie during your clearance investigation, you give your adjudicators a compelling reason to deny your clearance.
The Adjudicative Guidelines identify dishonesty as potentially disqualifying under Guideline E, Personal Conduct:
“Of special interest is any failure to cooperate or provide truthful and candid answers during national security investigative or adjudicative processes.”
If you intentionally lie in the clearance process, adjudicators will likely view this in a worse light than past bad behavior.
If you inadvertently include incorrect or omit relevant information. If you have a question about how to do that, talk to your security manager.
One-Time Incidents Versus Life Habits
Under the whole-person concept, investigators will determine if any problematic areas represent a pattern of irresponsibility or if they were short-term lapses in judgment.
They will also ascertain if areas of concern might be due to circumstances beyond your control.
For example, under Guideline F of the Adjudicative Guidelines, if you experienced a financial problem due to circumstances beyond your control, adjudicators might grant your clearance after considering mitigating criteria.
According to Guideline F, examples of circumstances beyond your control include:
- Loss of employment
- A business downturn
- Unexpected medical emergency
- A death, divorce or separation
- Clear victimization by predatory lending practices
- Identity theft.
On the other hand, if you have a pattern of frequently being in debt or financial irresponsibility with no mitigating circumstances, you may not be eligible for a clearance.
Of course, certain offenses are so egregious in the government’s eyes that they will deny your clearance even if this does not represent a pattern.
For example, committing espionage or a felony conviction will likely stop your clearance process dead in its tracks, even if you don’t have a lifelong pattern of these transgressions.
The Most Common Reasons for Being Denied a Security Clearance
DCSA’s Consolidated Adjudication Services (CAS) denied or revoked 2,716 security clearances from October 2021 to July 2022, according to DCSA spokesman Christopher Bentley.
Bentley also provided a list of the most common reasons DCSA denied or revoked security clearances during the same time period.
- Financial Considerations– 29%
- Criminal Conduct– 19.4%
- Personal Conduct – 16.4%
- Drug Involvement and Substance Misuse– 11.1%
- Alcohol Consumption– 8.7%
Some military members and DOD employees lost their clearances for more than one of these reasons, Bentley said.
In 2013, criminal conduct was the number one reason DCSA revoked security clearances for DOD personnel, according to a 2014 Report by the Government Accountability Office.
However, financial considerations represented the top reason for security clearance denials from 2019 to 2022, according to Bentley.
These financial issues can put your security clearance at risk, according to the Adjudicative Guidelines:
- Poor credit choices over a period of time
- Theft, embezzlement, tax evasion and other financial violations
- Patterns of unpaid debt
- Patterns of late payments
- Unexplained affluence in the form of cash or assets
- Financial trouble related to gambling
- Failing to pay or fraudulently filing federal and state returns
Seeking Help for Mental Health Concerns Will Not Impact Your Clearance
Don’t let fears of losing your clearance stop you from seeking help for depression, PTSD or other mental health issues.
As you probably noticed on the lists above, mental health is not a top reason DCSA denies and revokes security clearances.
“DCSA/CAS supports the DOD-wide Mental Health Care Destigmatization Initiative to encourage cleared individuals to seek behavioral health care when needed, without regard to their clearance eligibility,” Bentley wrote in an email.
“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.”
“Less than 1% of cases are denied (or) revoked for a Guideline I concern,” he added.
Appealing Denial of a Top Secret Security Clearance
According to DCSA’s appeal page, contractors, employees and military members have a right to appeal a security clearance denial or revocation.
Executive Order 12968 governs the process for military and civilian members, while Executive Order 10865 explains the rights of contractors. Normally, DOHA handles contractor appeals, while the Personnel Security Appeals Board (PSAB) handles security clearance appeals for military members and civilian employees.
Denied a clearance and confused about how to appeal? DCSA advises applicants that “speaking with your agency’s or company’s security office is the way to find out what specific processes apply to you.”
No process is perfect, which is why an appeals process exists.
Whether you are a new hire or an existing clearance holder, ensure your security office explains your rights after a denial or revocation.
The executive orders and guidelines are clear that every individual denied a security clearance has a right to appeal the denial.
Getting A Top Secret Security Clearance Reinstated After a Period of Inactivity
A security clearance lapsing because of a break in employment or other change in your status is not the same as being denied a clearance. If you have a period of inactivity, you may have to undergo a new background investigation.
The government grants security clearances on an as-needed basis. In some cases, your security clearance might become inactive if you no longer need access to national security information or are changing jobs.
Alternatively, depending on the organization, how long your clearance was inactive and the length of time since your last background check, your new organization might be able to reactivate your existing clearance. Your security manager will guide you on what you need to do to reinstate your clearance.
You can read more about active, inactive and interim clearances here.
Getting a Top Secret Security Clearance Reinstated After Revocation
On its site, DCSA also explains procedures to apply for clearance reinstatement after revocation. You must win your appeal for your agency to reinstate your clearance.
If the government denies or revokes your clearance and denies your appeal, you can reapply for a clearance after one year has passed since your final determination. Again, your agency will have to sponsor your security clearance.