When applying for a security clearance, you want the best outcome. For that reason, this isn’t the time to wing-it. Instead, you should become familiar with the security clearance process from beginning to end.
Here is a general rundown of the security clearance process to keep you informed and to increase your chances of obtaining the clearance you need.
Why Obtain a Security Clearance?
A security clearance is necessary for some military positions, as well as those held by a select group of federal employees and contractors. The designation allows the security clearance holder to access classified or otherwise protected information.
Not all levels of clearance are the same. In fact, there are three levels that a possessor of security clearance can hold, which include:
- Confidential: This is the least sensitive level of security clearance and, in turn, is also the easiest to obtain. Holders of this designation can access information that could cause damage to national security if that information is disclosed without authorization. This level of clearance must be reinvestigated every fifteen years.
- Secret: This level gives the holder access to even stricter information that could cause damage to national security if divulged accidentally or purposefully. This level must be reinvestigated every ten years.
- Top Secret: This level of national security gives the holder access to information that could cause exceptionally grave danger to the country’s national security if it that information is disclosed without proper authorization. This level must be reinvestigated every five years.
What is An Interim Security Clearance?
Some federal agencies will request new hires receive an interim security clearance until the application process can be pursued. These clearances can be obtained a few weeks after submitting a complete security package. The final clearance will usually be processed and adjudicated in less than ninety days. If you have an interim clearance, you can perform sensitive work, but in a temporary capacity. For a full clearance to be issued, you will need to complete a full background investigation.
How Can a Security Clearance Benefit You?
Whether you are in the military, part of the intelligence community, you work in federal law enforcement, or one of the diplomatic agencies, a security clearance can help you facilitate your employment objectives. Security clearances also tend to pay more than those who fail to obtain proper access to sensitive materials. For many, successfully holding a clearance can help you lead a better life. That’s why knowing the process is paramount to obtaining a favorable final decision.
What is the Security Clearance Process?
When applying for a security clearance, you will be given a series of forms to fill out. These forms are part of a package issued by the State Department’s Office of Personnel Security and Suitability.
A significant aspect of this package is the Standard Form 86 (SF-86), which consists of a series of questions that must be answered truthfully, and which spell out your reliability as a potential security clearance holder.
Once your packet has been received, it will be checked for completeness and entered into a case management system.
The SF-86 is a thorough background investigative resource. Each question represents a separate aspect of your past, including your employment, residential, and criminal histories. As part of the investigation, a case manager will conduct the proper agency record check before scanning your fingerprints for any possible obstacles to holding the necessary clearance.
You will then be contacted by an investigator for an in-person interview. The investigator’s role is to verify the information you listed on the SF-86.
Tips for Filling Out the SF-86
The SF-86 is a thorough background application that forces you to list where you have lived, who you have associated with, what you have done, why you have done what you’ve done, and other, very personal, information.
You will be required to know certain things about your past, like addresses, names, and descriptions of things that took place. It is best to get that information together now, as you prepare to apply for a security clearance. Doing so will keep you from scrambling to find the information later and could prevent you from making grave mistakes that can lead to a follow-up investigation or denial.
Never Lie on the SF-86 or During Interviews
It can be tempting to ballpark dates and gloss over facts, as who is really going to know, right? Well, an investigator digging into your past can verify those dates and will know if you received a DUI back in college. The investigator can discover that you smoked pot with friends at a concert several years ago, even if you hardly remember doing so.
A DUI and using a drug like marijuana might not necessarily bar you from receiving a security clearance, particularly if you can demonstrate that you now walk the straight and narrow path. This means that honesty is the best policy, both when completing the SF-86 and during interviews, when you may be asked about critical details in a face-to-face meeting.
What is the Security Clearance Process After the Interview?
The investigator will use your SF-86 as a starting point and will begin digging further into your investigation. If nothing untoward is discovered during this process, your case will move to the adjudication stage, which is where the decision is made to grant you a clearance or deny your application.
The majority of security clearance applications move through this process as quickly as possible. Occasionally, there are backups in the system, which can cause things to take longer than usual.
If your application has a red flag, it will be referred to the Defense Office of Hearings and Appeals (DOHA) for further review. DOHA then has the option to request a further investigation. If the office determines that it cannot grant you a clearance at this time, a Statement of Reasons will be sent to you detailing the findings that led to the final decision.
As a security clearance applicant, you have an opportunity to appeal the decision.
How Long Does the Security Clearance Process Take?
The length of the process depends on the level of security clearance you are attempting to obtain, and whether your history is clean or not.
Higher levels take longer, obviously, as more scrutiny will be placed on your background.
If during the investigation, it is discovered that you have debt, drug use, or another red flag, these findings can lengthen the process significantly, leading to more steps before your clearance can be granted.
How to Speed Up the Security Clearance Process?
When attempting to speed up the process for obtaining a security clearance, you can always improve your chances of fast adjudication by working with an experienced security clearance attorney. A lawyer trained and skilled in these matters can ensure you fill the SF-86 correctly, and that your accompanying paperwork is completed with utmost accuracy.
Errors and misunderstandings on your part can also delay the security clearance application process. If you handle the matters on your own, take great care that you understand how the process works and that you don’t make any errors whatsoever. Even leaving out a place of residence, which the investigator is likely to uncover, can get you denied for lying or omitting crucial information on the SF-86.
Can Receiving a SOR Increase the Security Clearance Timeline?
Yes. If the investigator uncovers details from your past that raise red flags, you may receive a document referred to as a Statement of Reasons or SOR. The SOR lists the reasons why your application may have been flagged or denied. Look over this document carefully to determine its validity. If any of the reasons are incorrect, in whole or in part, you may have a chance to mitigate those concerns. It helps to have the expertise of an experienced security clearance professional working alongside you, as the next step is to appeal the denial.
Security Clearance Appeals Process for Contractors & Military
It is said that 10% of security clearance applicants drop out of the process after receiving a SOR. For applicants who want to refute the SOR, you have a chance to do via a written rebuttal.
Whether you are a contractor for the federal government, a government employee, or you are enlisted with the armed forces, you must act quickly if you plan to appeal. Your written rebuttal will be sent to DOHA, but you must hurry, as you only have 20 days from the date you received the SOR.
The rebuttal must include each reason and your rebuttal for that reason. Include all relevant information that explains or mitigates the reason, as this is your chance to set the record straight.
Once your rebuttal has been received, the DOHA will submit to you a File of Relevant Materials (FORM). You then have 30 days from the receipt of that document to send the DOHA a written response to the FORM. This application will set forth your objections, extenuations, rebuttals, and explanations.
If your rebuttal proves that the allegations against you are unfounded, the DOHA will withdraw the SOR, and your clearance will be issued.
If not, the case will be assigned to a DOHA Administrative Judge (AJ) who will make a decision on the case with or without a hearing.
How to Request an Appeal Hearing with the DOHA
Be mindful that your rebuttal can come with or without a request for a formal hearing. It is not recommended that you waive your right to this hearing. This is your chance to state your rebuttal before a judge, which could lend it more weight and improve your chances of successfully appealing.
Either you or a DOHA attorney can request an appeal hearing. If the hearing request is granted, you will be notified fifteen days in advance. This document will list the time and place of the hearing, which is usually held within a major city near your home or place of employment.
The AJ will occasionally request a pre-hearing conference. Ensure that you show up to these meetings either by yourself or accompanied by your attorney or personal representative.
DOHA hearings are usually open, except when you request that the hearing be closed, or when the AJ deems that there is a good cause for keeping the hearing closed.
There are differences between the adjudication of security clearance cases for contractors and the military. Contractors of the federal government are referred to as industrial cases. Non-industrial cases, such as military members, do not have access to an appeal hearing. In these cases, your written rebuttal to the SOR will be reviewed by a supervisory adjudicator who will then make the final determination.
If your application is denied or revoked, you then have a right to appeal. By making the appeal, you have a choice of sending a written appeal with supporting documents or requesting a personal appearance before the DOHA Administrative Judge.
Should You Hire a Security Clearance Attorney?
In addition to helping you complete the security clearance application without errors, which can get you denied and/or lengthen the process considerably, a security clearance attorney can also help you find success with an appeal.
Tips for Improving Your Chances for Achieving a Security Clearance
Have a Clean Past
While you can’t take back every little thing you may have done, you can improve your chances by having a past that is free from red flags, like criminal activity, drug use, and foreign involvement.
Dot Your I's and Cross Your T's
Make sure your application, all supporting documents, and potential appeal information are all completed accurately. A single missing piece of information could spell bad news for your chances.
Invoke Your Rights
Become intimate with the process for obtaining a security clearance. If you can appeal, take that opportunity to mitigate the allegations against you and plead your case before a judge, if possible. Doing so can improve your chances of having your security clearance approved.
Work with an Attorney
Above all, get the advice of a tenured professional, such as the experienced lawyers at Security clearance Law Group. We can stand by your side during the application process and during any appeals to ensure your case moves swiftly through the system and that you obtain your security clearance when all is said and done.
For more information, contact our office in Carlsbad, California, for a free case review.