Security Clearance Levels

Updated: June 14, 2023
In this Article

    The issue of security clearances comes up for both military members and civilian employees working for the federal government. Clearances are granted in order to allow troops, employees, and contractors access to sensitive information, facilities or circumstances and are not granted lightly.

    What you don’t know about the security clearance process won’t hurt you by default. Still there are some things to be aware of before you submit to the clearance process that will help you better understand the hows and whys of security clearances and how they are granted.

    Security Clearance Levels For Federal Employees (Non-Military)

    There are three levels of clearance for federal employees. The U.S. Department of State official website lists the federal clearances in order from lowest to highest:

    • Confidential
    • Secret
    • Top Secret (TS)

    In addition to these clearance levels, some holding Secret or Top Secret security clearances will also be recommended for Special Access Programs (SAP), which is a strictly need-to-know, limited access for those who are recommended for SAP.

    These clearance levels allow employees to have access to classified national security information or other restricted data at the level of clearance and for any clearance level below it, but need to know is always a driving factor in what information or materials a security clearance provides access to.

    In other words, just because you have a Secret security clearance level, you are not automatically granted unrestricted access to any classified information at the Secret level.


    Security Clearance Levels For Military Members

    Like civilian federal employees, the security clearance granted will be on a level with the need of the job or the mission. The three security clearance levels for military members and nonmilitary alike, from lowest to highest include:

    • Confidential
    • Secret
    • Top Secret (TS)

    The primary difference between a civilian and a military clearance level is that fingerprints and other materials may (or may not) have already been gathered as part of the military enlistment process. Some procedures for military members may be a bit more streamlined than for a brand new federal hire in a civilian position.

    Like civilian employees, some military members with Secret or Top Secret clearances may also be recommended for Special Access Programs, which are described as “enforced” need-to-know levels of clearance.

    Not all who carry Secret or Top Secret clearances are read into SAP, but all who are admitted to Special Access Programs will have a Secret clearance or above. In some cases employees without a clearance may be included after undergoing required background checks and other procedures, but this process is up to the hiring agency.


    A “Fourth” Security-Clearance Level

    The interim clearance does not provide a different level of access to classified information, but rather acts as a temporary approval to access the information or facilities permitted by the proposed clearance level the employee or military member is being investigated for.

    Interim clearances are usually granted conditionally upon the receipt of the completed clearance questionnaire paperwork and other materials as needed.

    Interim clearances are not considered routine; the U.S. Department of State describes the conditions under which these interim clearances are issued as “exceptional circumstances”.


    Security Clearance Level Misconceptions

    There is a common misconception that there are five security clearance levels (Controlled Unclassified, Public Trust Position, Confidential, Secret, and Top Secret (TS)). However, Controlled Unclassified and Public Trust Position are not considered security clearance levels.

    Controlled Unclassified Information (CUI)

    Controlled Unclassified Information (CUI) does not represent a clearance designation, but rather a clearance level at which information distribution is controlled. CUI designates information that may be illegal to distribute.  CUI is information requiring safeguarding or dissemination controls pursuant to and consistent with applicable law, regulations, and government-wide policies but is not classified under Executive Order 13526 or the Atomic Energy Act, as amended.

    Public Trust Position

    Public Trust is a type of background investigation, but it is not a security clearance. Certain positions which require access to sensitive information, but not information which is classified, must obtain this designation through a background check. In the US.,. public trust positions can either be moderate risk or high-risk.

    Special Access Programs

    Special Access Programs are those offered to certain qualifying federal employees or uniformed service members who are recommended and vetted for the program.

    You are not automatically approved to participate in a Special Access Program just because you carry a secret clearance or better. You must be nominated, your security clearance investigation must have taken place it the past five years, and the following are also required:

    • The applicant must take a random CI-scope polygraph examination when required;
    • Must sign a Department of Defense-approved SAP program indoctrination;
    • Must sign a non-disclosure agreement.
    • The applicant must acknowledge that violations of the NDA may lead to termination of access, removal from a position of special confidence, and prosecution;
    • Acknowledges the NDA is in perpetuity.

    If you are recommended or nominated for a SAP, approval is dependent on a “favorable” clearance procedure which requires the most current Standard Form 86 within the past 12 months or an updated version if the Standard Form 86 is older than 12 months.)

    When working with SAP projects, those granted access are first briefed about the national security implications of negligently or purposefully allowing information associated with the SAP to be disclosed, leaked, etc.

    Those working on a SAP may be required to submit their work for security review if reports or other writing contains SAP details, information, etc. In normal cases the government is meant to respond within 30 working days from the submission.

    Some may, because of the nature of their jobs, be nominated for SAP during their inprocessing phase, while others may be promoted into a position that requires SAP. The timing of this process will vary from agency to agency, but if you think you may be nominated for such a position it’s a good idea to make sure your last SF 86 information is available in case you need to update it during the SAP process.

    Length Of The Clearance Investigation

    Regardless of the security level, investigations take approximately 120 days or longer depending on the nature of the investigation and the completeness of the information provided. Those who have done extensive overseas travel may find their process takes longer because of the need to verify those activities.

    Who Can Request A Security Clearance?

    No military member or potential new hire may initiate the clearance process. This is done by the agency requiring the clearances.

    The Security Clearance Questionnaire

    No matter what level of clearance you may need, there will be a lengthy form to complete requiring a lot of detail including your past addresses for 10 years, explanations of foreign travel, any associations with foreign companies or entities, and more. Civilian employees must complete paperwork that is more than 100 pages long. Military members face similar forms.

    The questionnaire should be considered a precursor to a background investigation and an interview where required. The investigation is an important part of the process. Military and civilian employees alike should know that filling out the form is basically providing a basic framework for the investigation.

    What Does This Mean?

    It means the background check will use your answers to inform the investigation but may not, and often does not, get limited to following up on the information provided. This is critically important because there are penalties for falsifying or knowingly omitting details asked in this process.

    If you omit or falsify information in the clearance process, the investigation will most likely reveal this, and the results can include a loss of the ability to obtain a clearance of any kind. This renders the subject basically unemployable by the agency requesting the investigation.

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    Security Clearances Are Offered As A Condition Of Employment

    That means you may only participate in the investigation/security clearance background check if you have been offered a job. Potential new hires do not get investigated in this way.

    Security Clearance Checks On Family Members or Those Living With The Employee/Military Member

    In certain cases, limited records checks may be performed on “a spouse or cohabitant of an individual being processed for a Top Secret level clearance,” with the authorization of the person being investigated. The U.S. Department Of State added, “Additional investigations may be conducted when the spouse or cohabitant is a foreign national”.

    Those applying for a security clearance where this may apply should know “cohabitation” is defined as “sharing a living unit, such as a house or apartment, on a frequent and regular basis, while employed by the department, without regard to the nature of any interpersonal relationship or reason for sharing living quarters”.

    For Those Who Are Denied A Security Clearance

    Being denied a clearance can and does happen. New hires and those who are being reinvestigated should know that there is an appeals process involved in these situations. Don’t assume you have no recourse if you are faced with such a scenario.

    What Can Cause A Denial Of A Security Clearance? 

    The U.S. Department of State official site lists the following reasons why an applicant may be denied a clearance. (Note that this is not a complete list.):

    • A lack of candor in the investigation process
    • Foreign influence
    • Foreign preference
    • Sexual behavior
    • Personal conduct
    • Financial considerations
    • Alcohol consumption
    • Substance abuse
    • Psychological conditions
    • Criminal conduct

    Military members are subject to all the above but may also be evaluated on areas where the Uniform Code of Military Justice may have jurisdiction including domestic political activities, conduct that reflects poorly on the military or the DoD, etc.

    The Three Security Clearance Levels Do Not “Travel” To Non-Government Employment

    Many retired or separated military members or non-military family members wonder about job openings that describe having a security clearance as a plus, or even a requirement. In the case of a non-government job, this is likely a request to know what clearance level the applicant had in government service but federal security clearances themselves do not transfer to non-government jobs.

    This means your clearance may give you an advantage in hiring as a trusted member of the military or as a government employee, but your confidential, secret, or top secret clearance does not allow you to utilize such clearances in the private sector. They are not applicable.

    That does not mean a future employer doesn’t have their own set of clearances or levels of “classified” information, but it does mean that any such designation in the private sector has no association at all with government service, or access to classified government data.

    Security Clearances May Travel Between Government Jobs Or Military Assignments

    The ability to use an existing clearance in another federal or military job is dependent on the rules of the gaining and losing agencies, and whether the employee is due for a re-investigation after a certain period of time. Five years is not uncommon, but some employees who have left federal service and are returning may be re-investigated on different time frames.

    Clearance Expiration After Leaving Government Service

    The Department of State will generally revalidate a security clearance if there has been a gap in federal service of less than two years. Military members who retire or separate may face different requirements than federal employees depending on circumstances, mission requirements, and other factors.

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