Special Access Programs (SAP)

Updated: March 25, 2021
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    What are Special Access Programs (SAP)? The Center For Development of Security Excellence, (an entity which “provides security education, training, and certification for DoD and industry” ) defines SAP as being necessary for “a specific class of classified information” requiring a higher level of protection and restricted access than for those “normally required for information at the same classification level.”

    These programs likely have been running a long time before they were publicly acknowledged in the 1980s. It’s no surprise that in decades prior there was a healthy interest in keeping such things secret, but over time it has become necessary to acknowledge SAPs.

    In the 1980s, the acknowledgement of SAPs occurred while still known under the fairly sinister moniker of the “black program” and many of them were related to protecting restricted information associated with Defense Department acquisitions.

    Training literature from the Center For Development of Security Excellence states such SAPs were termed “black programs” due to being “close-hold” operations where “people were unaware of their existence, and were conducted in tight-knit organizations.”

    In the 1990s, the term Special Access Program replaced “Black Program” and refinements were made under SAP rules to include safeguarding more than acquisition programs–going forward SAPs could also include operations, support, and intelligence programs.

    Authority For Special Access Programs

    Executive Order 13526, Classified National Security Information, provides the legal authority for Special Access Programs. In this Order, SAPs are defined specifically as programs established for a specific class of classified information” (sound familiar?) imposing higher requirements than usual for classified information.

    Under this executive order, SAPs are created only when required by law or upon discovery of “exceptional vulnerability of, or threat to, specific information,” and when the usual classification levels are not quite enough to safeguard the classified material.


    Is SAP A Security Clearance?

    Being admitted into or “read into” a Special Access Program does not mean you have been given another security clearance. Though you are required to pass background check procedures, if you already hold a Secret or Top Secret clearance your access to SAP material is granted on the strength of your recommendation by a fellow SAP member and your ability to pass the background screening or the ability to maintain your clearance after it has been granted. We’ll look at the specific requirements below.

    SAP means you are allowed to access certain information restricted even to Secret and Top Secret clearance holders without a “need to know”. Any type of job might require SAP–if you are required to see need-to-know information at any level you could be required to be read into such a program.

    SAPs use the familiar levels of classified information:

    • Top Secret
    • Secret
    • Confidential

    You may be required to use assigned nicknames, code words, or special identification or materials handling procedures under an SAP.

    An Example Of An SAP

    Here’s a good, though fictional example. Two human resources people work in the same office, but one of them has to access travel orders, travel vouchers, or other information that is done as part of classified operations. The information on the travel orders is need-to-know due to the classified nature of the travel.

    The person who does not need to access this would not be read into an SAP, but the one who DOES would be required to be recommended for SAP to see the need-to-know information. Again, this is NOT a real-world example per se, but it does show the hows and whys of SAP.


    What Is Required To Be Approved For SAP

    For starters, like security clearances in general, military members and federal hires do not have the ability to go out and obtain their own clearance–this must be done via the chain of command and may begin with you being notified by your supervisor or command support staff that there is a need for you to be admitted to an SAP.

    When the process begins you must:

    • Be nominated
    • In general you must have been approved for a SECRET or TOP SECRET CLEARANCE
    • Applicants must have passed a background investigation completed within the last five years
    • Must be awarded a “favorable clearance adjudication” based on SF 86 “Questionnaire for National Security Positions” submitted within the past 12 months (see below)
    • SF-86s older than 12 months may be updated using the original form or a current SF 86C, “Standard Form 86 Certification”
    • Must submit to a polygraph examination, if required

    Additionally, applicants must sign non-disclosure agreements enforceable in perpetuity, they must accept the responsibilities of safeguarding the classified information, and they are:

    • Advised of implications to national security relevant to unauthorized disclosure, or negligent handling of SAP information
    • Required to submit work for security review if they contain any SAP information or descriptions of activities related to SAP information
    • Briefed and must acknowledge the repercussions for breaches of the agreement (termination, loss of clearance, etc.)

    These programs require the same sort of background clearance checks as those required for Secret and Top Secret clearances–there is no above-and-beyond investigations required. But the investigations must be carried out in order for you to be accepted as part of an SAP.

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    About The AuthorJoe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News

    Written by Veteran.com Team