What You Need to Know About Getting a Security Clearance

Securing a Job Opportunity

Aspiring civil servants may find themselves in need of security clearances to gain government employment or move up in the ranks. U.S. citizens who apply for this kind of access may have to fill out forms, provide character references for investigators to interview and even submit to polygraph tests. After this information is gathered, adjudicators who work for different government agencies decide whether an individual is “able and willing to safeguard classified national security information, based on his or her loyalty, character, trustworthiness, and reliability,” according to the Department of Defense website. Learn more about security clearances with information from government agencies and insight from Evan Lesser, president of ClearanceJobs.com, a career website.

They’re not just for spies.

The federal government is the largest employer in the U.S., which means all kinds of mundane positions require security clearances. “One of the misconceptions is security-clearance jobs are cloak and dagger spy stuff. The reality is most of the jobs are pretty boring, average positions,” Lesser says. “There’s a whole lot of people in the Pentagon that have high-level clearance, but they do things like sweeping the floor or are a security guard at the front gate.” Information technology positions account for a large proportion of the jobs, which include duties such as software engineering, database administration and hardware installation. Other fields include sales and marketing, logistics, health care and, yes, gathering intelligence.

They’re not just for jobs in the District of Columbia.

The nation’s capital does have a concentration of federal workers. But the government employs people around the country: 79 percent of its employees work beyond D.C., Maryland and Virginia, according to Governing Magazine’s assessment of data from the Office of Personnel Management. Companies and universities nationwide do work on behalf of the federal system. That means security-clearance jobs are “an all-50-states kind of thing,” Lesser says.

It takes a long time to get them.

The State Department says it takes an average of 120 days to process a clearance, but Lesser says there’s currently a big backlog, pushing the figure to more than 300 days for low-level clearances and more than 500 days for high-level clearances. That’s bad news for people who want security clearances, Lesser says, because it means “most employers these days are looking to find someone who already has a clearance rather than pull someone off the street and try to get them one.”

They’re limited in scope and duration.

Clearances don’t come with unlimited powers. To access classified information, “the individual must have both the appropriate level of personnel security clearance and a need to know for the classified information,” according to the Department of Defense website. Workers don’t keep their security clearances for life. They’re considered “active” if they pertain to workers’ jobs. When workers leave those jobs, their clearances are considered “current” for about two years. After that, they expire. “Former officials maintain them, but that doesn’t mean they can just pull up classified information,” Lesser says. “People think if you have a clearance you have the keys to the castle, and that’s not true at all. You only have access to information at that level pertaining to your job.”

They’re free for workers.

Employers pay the costs of security clearances. The only cost to workers is time, energy — and the discomfort of having their lives assessed by strangers. There’s also the burden of asking relatives and friends to serve as character witnesses during interviews with investigators.

No one mistake will prevent you from getting one.

According to the State Department website, the factors adjudicators consider are: allegiance to the United States; foreign influence; foreign preference; sexual behavior; personal conduct; financial considerations; alcohol consumption; drug involvement and substance misuse; psychological conditions; criminal conduct; handling protected information; outside activities; and use of information technology. Despite rumors that one college party or big gambling loss will preclude workers from consideration, adjudicators use a “whole person” philosophy when deciding who is suitable for a security clearance, Lesser says: “The government is looking for a pattern of behavior,” he explains. “One incident isn’t necessarily going to cause you to lose your clearance.” That said, one outrageous offense on the level of a murder charge will probably ruin your chances.

Financial concerns are commonly linked to denials.

Information released from the Defense Office of Hearing and Appeals Board reveals that financial considerations are the most common cause associated with clearance denials. In the first quarter of 2018, 100 of 150 appeals cases dealt with some kind of financial concern. According to Lesser, these personal finance issues raise red flags: heavy debt; an imbalanced debt-to-income ratio; financial negligence, such as writing bad checks; and foreclosure or bankruptcy.

If you’ve got a secret, you may be out of luck.

Coercion is one of the main reasons classified information is leaked, Lesser says. That means any big secret an applicant keeps could lead to a clearance denial if an adjudicator thinks it could lead to blackmail. “If you’ve been promiscuous and don’t want people knowing, that could be used as leverage against you,” Lesser explains. “If your sexual preference is not known publicly and you don’t want it known publicly, it could be used against you.”

Mental health issues are not cause for denial.

Thanks to the decreasing stigma around mental health care and the fact that a large percentage of Americans take psychiatric drugs, common psychological conditions like depression and anxiety are no longer the red flag they once were to adjudicators, Lesser says.

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What You Need to Know About Getting a Security Clearance originally appeared on usnews.com

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