How to Get a Top-Secret Clearance

Getting a Top Secret clearance (TS/SCI) means you can work with classified national security data. The process is lengthy and intrusive, but it is designed to protect the nation.

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Clearances require thorough investigations, from interviews with acquaintances to checking information verified through automated systems. The investigations can take up to 18 months for a TS/SCI clearance.

Background Investigation

Top-secret clearance allows access to information that could cause serious harm to national security if revealed without authorization. It’s granted after a rigorous Single Scope Background Investigation (SSBI) and can be granted for access to Sensitive Compartmented Information (SCI).

The SSBI process can take up to 18 months, as it investigates an applicant’s past activities in depth, examining their work history, education, associations, and financial issues. Investigators also examine an applicant’s psychiatric health and any drug or alcohol use, as well as their foreign activities and relationships. Applicants are encouraged to be honest in the interview, but any attempts to hide or omit negative information can disqualify a candidate.

A federal adjudicator reviews the results of the SSBI and Tier 3 and Tier 5 Personnel Security Investigations (PSI) for those requesting a clearance, using criteria in National Security Adjudicative Guidelines. Staff adjudicators at the Department of Defense Consolidated Adjudications Services (CAF) are primarily responsible for granting Tier 3 and Tier 5 PSIs for people who want a clearance, but are also in charge of conducting SSBI Periodic Reinvestigations.

Reinvestigation

The holder of a Top Secret clearance has access to information that, if disclosed without authorization, would cause exceptionally grave damage to national security or organizational interests. This information can only be accessed by those with a demonstrated need-to-know and who have signed nondisclosure agreements. Clearance holders are expected to follow strict security protocols, regularly undergo reinvestigations and remain free from potentially disqualifying activities.

During the vetting process for a Top Secret clearance, investigators interview people who have worked with the applicant, his family and neighbors and review financial responsibility, credit history, emotional stability and other factors. The holder is also required to sign nondisclosure agreements and undergo periodic reinvestigations.

For contractors who work for DoD, a reinvestigation is required every 10 years in order to keep the clearance. DSS notifies the contractor of the upcoming investigation and reviews an updated security package. The contractor may be able to submit an interim determination from DSS if the investigation meets employment suitability standards and other investigative checks come back favorable.

The investigation for a Tier 3R reinvestigation is typically shorter than that for a Tier 5R because of the investigative backlog that resulted in the requirement to conduct periodic reinvestigations for all personnel with access to classified information. This requirement is in accordance with NISPOM paragraph 2-201d. The time it takes to complete an investigation depends on how much the individual can help speed up the process. Incorrect or incomplete answers to the SF86 questions can significantly slow down the investigation.

Continuous Evaluation

In an effort to streamline the security clearance process, the government has begun to implement continuous evaluation (CE) as a means of monitoring cleared people in between periodic reinvestigations. CE is an automated record check system that uses various commercial databases and information lawfully available to security officials for individuals who hold a security clearance or occupy a sensitive position. The National Counterintelligence and Security Center (NCSC) oversees the implementation of the CE program as part of security clearance reform efforts.

When an individual signs the SF 86 to obtain or maintain a security clearance, they agree to allow the government to conduct background investigations, reinvestigations, and continuous evaluation. The Department of Defense is currently rolling out its version of CE and is expected to have the entire clearance population enrolled by 2023. The program will include diverse forms of automated data checking such as social media, credit checks, self-reporting records, and criminal record searching.

Once an individual is enrolled in CE, the NCSC’s continuous evaluation systems automatically reports relevant derogatory information to the appropriate sponsoring agency for adjudication. The sponsoring agency will then decide whether to take action such as requiring the individual to undergo a new background investigation or placing them in a different clearance level.

Disqualification

Some government positions and private industry jobs require a top secret clearance to access highly sensitive information that affects national security. Obtaining a top secret clearance requires passing a single-scope background investigation (SSBI) that can take up to 18 months. In addition, you must pass a periodic reinvestigation (SSBI-PR) every five years to maintain your clearance.

The level of security clearance required depends on the sensitivity of the position and whether it is classified as non-critical sensitive, critical sensitive or special sensitive. The process is the same for all, but a higher level of investigation is required for the highest levels of clearances. The investigator will follow up on anything that isn’t immediately evident from the initial application and may conduct interviews with friends, coworkers, family members and acquaintances who can offer insights into your character and conduct. The FBI will also investigate your financial history and review public records. Typical disqualifying factors include criminal activity, significant foreign contacts, drug abuse and mental health issues.

In general, the government seeks to protect national security by granting people access only to information they need for their work. Keeping to the need-to-know principle minimizes the risk of unauthorized disclosure of information and helps ensure that all personnel are treated fairly and can be trusted to remain loyal to the United States. Those with clearances are also expected to comply with all security protocols and procedures, such as limiting the amount of time spent in classified areas, ensuring that the information they access is only shared with those who need it and using encryption for electronic transmission of sensitive data.