Security Clearances - Who Will Need Them and How to Get One

Date: March 18, 2010

Most of the jobs coming to Maryland and surrounding areas as a result of BRAC will require a security clearance. Some vacancies will be created by federal employees leaving their jobs because they do not wish to relocate. Some job openings will be the result of contracting activities moving into the area and requiring additional contractor support. Still other job openings will come from new government programs concurrently arriving in the area such as the anticipated U.S. Cyber Command, which will assume responsibility for the defense of the military's portion of cyberspace. The vast majority of these positions will require a clearance at the SECRET or higher level.

In general, people who work for any organization or government office that handles information designated as "classified" by the federal government will probably need a clearance. This includes military personnel, people working for defense contractors, and federal workers who handle "sensitive" information in medicine, telecommunications, education, and finance. Even people who do not handle "sensitive information" but who work in a secured facility where other people do, will probably need a security clearance. In addition, companies or non-profits that have federal contracts or grants, including think-tanks, research organizations, defense manufacturers, and software development companies may also require employees to hold security clearances.

A security clearance is the process of determining an applicant's trustworthiness and reliability before granting him or her access to national security information. Essentially, it is a license issued by a federal government agency and authorizes a worker to handle "classified" information--that is, information deemed "CONFIDENTIAL," "SECRET" or "TOP SECRET" by the U.S. government. Such "classified" information could damage national security if it were to fall into the wrong hands. Basically, anyone who requires access to classified information to perform his or her duties must have a clearance at least to the level of access. That is, if the job requires access to CONFIDENTIAL information, then the person requires a CONFIDENTIAL security clearance; if the job requires access to TOP SECRET information, then the person requires a TOP SECRET security clearance. Having a certain level of security clearance does not mean that one is authorized to view classified information. To have access to classified information, one must possess two necessary elements: a level of security clearance at least equal to the classification of the information AND an appropriate "need to know" the information in order to perform their duties. Just because someone has a SECRET clearance, would not give him or her access to all SECRET information. They would need to have a specific reason to know that information, before they could be granted access. Any person who is employed by an organization that is sending, receiving, or developing information that the government has deemed as important to National security will need to obtain a security clearance. Many people erroneously think that they can go to a company or agency and apply for their own security clearance. Not so. Only the federal government can grant someone a security clearance, and to get one the applicant must work for a government agency or contractor and conduct business that justifies granting him or her access to highly sensitive information. No company without a contract with the federal government can independently give or seek a security clearance, and no individual who is not working for the federal government or a contract organization can get a security clearance.

Getting a personnel security clearance is a long process and depends on the type of clearance a person needs to obtain. There are three main phases to receiving a security clearance:
The first phase is the application process. This involves verification of U.S. citizenship, fingerprinting, and completion of the Personnel Security Questionnaire (SF-86) and other supporting documents. Some of the information required on the application may include phone numbers and resident addresses of friends and family members who may serve as personal references, a list of travel outside of the U.S. within the last ten years, and a complete list of credit cards and loans. The applicant's signature on the SF-86 documents will allow the agency to check their medical history, credit/financial history, military background, police record, and other areas of life.

The second phase involves the actual investigation of the applicant's background. Most of the background check is conducted by the Defense Security Service (DSS). This may include interviews with co-workers, family, friends, associates, and others, a review of medical, credit, financial and other history, a background check to determine the use of illegal drugs, criminal record, and contact with foreign nationals and a check on many other areas of the applicant's life. For some high level clearances, a polygraph test may be required.

The final phase is the adjudication phase. The results from the investigative phase are reviewed. The information that has been gathered is evaluated based on factors determined by the Department of Defense (DoD). Some examples of areas that may be considered are: allegiance to the United States, criminal and personal conduct, and substance abuse or mental disorders. Clearance is granted or denied following this evaluation process.

Once the applicant has turned in the documentation, the designated agency will begin the security clearance/investigation/adjudication proceedings, depending on backlog and priority. The amount of time it takes to receive a security clearance depends largely on backlog, need for more information, depth of the investigation/adjudication process and other factors. If the applicant has lived or worked in several geographic locations or overseas, or has relatives who have lived outside of the United States, the investigation may take longer. Additionally, the more international travel the applicant has had within the last ten years, the more complicated the security clearance process will be. In general, it can take the government from six months to one year to conduct the complete investigation of a lower-level clearance status. The highest-level clearances can take up to two years. Once a clearance has been granted, it generally has to be updated at least every five years.