Professionals who are required to obtain a security clearance must go through an thorough application process in order to obtain their desired clearance. At first, the individual must fill out a Security Clearance Background Investigation Questionnaire. The Office of Personnel Management sponsors an electronic government initiative, part of which is the Electronic Questionnaires for Investigations Processing system (e-QIP). With e-QIP, applicants can electronically transmit, update, and enter their personal investigation-related data using an Internet connection that’s secure. The employer or office of security management can then review and approve the request.
Understanding the e-QIP System
The e-QIP website can be securely accessed at www.opm.gov/e-QIP. The website holds all forms related to personnel security investigations. Because of a connection to the Joint Clearance Access and Verification System (JCAVS), the e-QIP enables requesters who have authorization to transmit electronic requests for investigation (SF 86) instead of mailing those requests. The JCAVS e-QIP requester must be a JCAVS user with an access level between 2 and 6. The account manager must also grant to the requester permission for the Security Management Office (SMO); e-QIP is a replacement for the Electronic Personnel Security Questionnaire (EPSQ). It’s possible to view all of the questionnaire’s questions without downloading and installing the software.
Confidential and Secret Clearances
For confidential and secret clearance levels, the applicant must provide the last five years worth of information. Top secret clearance requires ten years worth of information. Anyone who provides information that turns out to be false on a security document is in violation of Title 18, United States Code, Section 101; and Article 107 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). Consequences based on the United States Code include a fine and a five-year imprisonment term. According to the UCMJ, a maximum punishment might be a reduction to the lowest grade of enlistment for that military service, a forfeiting of all allowance and pay, or a five-year confinement and a dishonorable discharge.
Page 10 of the SF-86 specifies that the applicant must sign a statement that authorizes the release of any and all personal information to investigators. This release enables investigators to access every bit of information related to the applicant, including all juvenile records, expunged records, sealed records, or medical records.
After the applicant completes the ESPQ, the Defense Security Service (DSS) receives the document. The DSS verifies the information and performs an investigation of the applicant’s background. The investigation’s level of detail and focus depends on which level of access the applicant is seeking.
Confidential and secret clearances require both national and local agency checks.
The national agency check involves computerized searching of investigation files and additional records that federal agencies—such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Office of Personnel Management (OPM)—keep. The local agency check involves reviewing any records of criminal history that local law-enforcement agencies—including sheriffs and police departments—hold. The jurisdiction of this check includes where the applicant has lived, worked, or attended school.
Top Secret Clearances
A top secret clearance involves a Single Scope Background Investigation (SSBI). The SSBI includes the national and local agency checks in addition to the following:
- Interviews conducted in the field of personal friends, coworkers, educators, employers, neighbors, and anyone else deemed appropriate for the investigation of the applicant
- Record checks of courts, rental offices, and employers related to the applicant
- An investigator’s personal interview of the applicant
At least one investigator from an area near where the investigation happens will conduct most of the investigation, though national agency checks can be conducted electronically using the Internet. The Defense Security Service conducts these investigations using two different kinds of investigators: DSS agents and contractors. Contractors—such as Omniplex World Services Inc., Government Business Services Group (GBSG), Management Technology Corp (ManTech), MSM Security Services Corp, and Dyncorp (Information & Enterprise Technology Division)—provide support for investigations.
Investigators and Interviews
Investigators typically start field interviews with those people the applicant has listed on the questionnaire as references. The initial interviews yield additional references that the investigators can later interview. Those people who are interviewed by an investigator must answer questions about the applicant’s trustworthiness, reliability, and honesty. The people who are interviewed must also provide opinions about whether the applicant should be able to access information that’s classified, or be assigned to a position of trust or a sensitive position. The people who are interviewed also answer questions about the applicant’s previous and current finances and activities. In addition to gathering personal historical facts, investigators’ goal is to determine whether the applicant has been involved with drugs, had police encounters, or has troubling drinking routines. Investigators seek out both positive and negative information about the applicant’s background so the adjudicator can appropriately grant or deny security clearance to the applicant.
During the interview that the investigator conducts directly with the applicant, the investigator tries to completely understand the applicant as an individual. All of the information gained from the interview can help the adjudicator decide whether the applicant can cope with being granted access to sensitive or classified information without risking the security of the information. The applicant interview touches on many topics so that the investigator can understand all aspects of the applicant’s life. Question topics for an applicant’s interview include prior experiences, alcohol or drug use, overall health, family, finances, worldwide travel, and other relevant items.
To ensure the impartiality of the security clearance investigation, the gathering of information is a separate responsibility from the determination of whether to grant a security clearance. The DSS only collects the data. After verifying the information and completing all interviews and investigations, DSS provides the data to the adjudicator authority for that particular military service. Each service has a separate adjudicator authority that uses that service’s standards to determine whether each security clearance should be granted.
There’s no single reliable way to predict what information might cause a security clearance to be denied. The Adjudicator Guidelines are what adjudicators use to decide whether an applicant is trustworthy enough to know the country’s secrets. Adjudicators initially identify the traits of trustworthiness, honesty, loyalty, character, reliability, and financial responsibility as key determinants of whether access will be granted. If an investigation includes a lot of negative information that precipitates action, the adjudicator might request more information, interviews, or investigation. The adjudicator also has the power to request drug, alcohol, or psychiatric evaluation based on the findings. Even with all this power, the final decision doesn’t rest solely with adjudicators. Each denial of a security clearance is reviewed personally by the branch chief or a higher ranking official for that military service.
Recent updates to the law mean that some factors do cause a security clearance application to be denied. Because of the Smith Amendment, the United States Code, Title 10, Chapter 49 has been amended by the FY01 Defense Authorization Act, preventing an initial granting or renewing of a security clearance for any of the following four reasons:
- The applicant received a conviction in any United States court of a crime and was sentenced to a prison term of more than one year.
- The applicant is currently addicted to or an unlawful user of a controlled substance, according to the definition in section 102 of the Controlled Substances Act (21U.S.C. 802).
- A DoD-approved mental health professional has deemed the applicant mentally incompetent.
- The applicant has received a dishonorable discharge from the armed forces.
The statute also states that, if the situation warrants it, an exception can be authorized. The Secretary of Defense or the military department’s secretary can make an exception for the provisions related to an armed forces dismissal or discharge, or an applicant’s convictions.
The Timeline Varies
The process of obtaining security clearance can take some time, depending on multiple factors, including the investigation type. The DoD has been working to complete a large backlog of security clearances and pending investigations in the past three years. The backlog especially large for reviewing applicants seeking top secret clearance. Approval for a confidential or secret clearance can take 1-3 months. Approval for top secret clearance takes longer, typically 4-8 months. That said, some people seeking top secret clearance have been waiting for longer than one year. Usually, when an applicant has a lot of information to investigate, that investigation takes longer. An applicant with any of the following circumstances can expect a longer investigation:
- Worked or lived overseas or in multiple geographic areas
- Traveled abroad
- Have relatives living or who used to live outside of the United States
- Difficult-to-obtain background data, or issues requiring additional investigation
Background of Applicant
If an applicant who is being investigated has technical training (an AIT/Tech School/A-School) that requires accessing classified data, that applicant can be assigned details, such as answering phones in an office setting, while he or she waits for the results of the security clearance investigation. Applicants in this type of situation might be able to attend portions of the training that are not classified while waiting for their application results.
If an applicant’s security clearance or sensitive assignment is denied, the applicant can appeal the decision. The applicant receives a statement about why he or she is ineligible for the level of clearance he or she was seeking and instructions for how to file an appeal. Applicants who believe that information from their investigations is wrong or misleading can clarify the situation or correct the information.
Use of Polygraph
DoD Directive 5210.48 and DoD Regulation 5320.48R govern the use of a polygraph for any DoD program. Assignment to or employment by the DSS or the National Security Agency (NSA), or assignment or loan of DoD employees to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), require polygraph examination.
A polygraph can also be used—with consent—for other security investigations of personnel in order to resolve credible negative information. If the results of a polygraph indicate deception, the applicant cannot be subject to punishment, except if the Secretary or Under Secretary of Defense determines that the classified information has such sensitivity that sharing the information with the applicant unduly risks national security.
Polygraphs can also supplement an investigation of a federal felony, of alleged terrorism acts, of classified information’s unauthorized disclosure, or if the applicant requests a polygraph examination in order to prove innocence of questionable findings of an investigation.
Regulations for the DoD detail precisely how a polygraph examination has to be conducted. The applicant must have reviewed all relevant questions before the examination begins. All questions asked during a polygraph examination must be specifically relevant to the investigation. The only questions that do not have to be disclosed prior to beginning the examination are “validating” questions that help the examiner to determine a baseline. Examiners use the baseline to determine how truthful the answers to the questions are. The following types of questions are prohibited from a polygraph examination:
- Probing questions about the applicant’s beliefs or thoughts
- Questions about any subject that isn’t directly related to the investigation, including religious and political beliefs, and opinions related to racial matters
Professional Assistance is Available
Obtaining a security clearance or appealing a denial is an involved process which can require legal assistance. Ravenhearth Law has the resources and experience necessary to guide you through the entire security clearance process; including formation of the SF-86 in addition to providing security clearance defense services if needed. If you have a question regarding the security clearance process or are in need of legal assistance – call Ravenhearth Law or send us a description of your case online.