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Security Clearance 101

WHO NEEDS A SECURITY CLEARANCE?

Any person who has worked or will work for an organization that requires access to restricted information more than likely has or will need a security clearance.

There are over hundreds of thousands military personnel transitioning out of the service each year. These separating military members look for employment in fields such as the commercial defense‐related fields where they can utilize their expert military training and technical skills. In addition, these jobs generally require background checks due to the sensitive nature of the materials the individual handles on a daily basis ‐ this is where the former military member's clearance may become a valuable commodity.

WHAT IS A SECURITY CLEARANCE?

Certain federal employees and certain employees in the private sector are required to have security clearances because their job requires them to have access to classified documents. Various other work takes place in secured facilities. The occupant of any such job is said to hold a "sensitive" position, defined as "any position, by virtue of its nature, could bring about a material adverse effect on national security". At any given time, there are about 3 million
people with security clearances. In addition, there are about 1.5 million security clearances in the hands of private contracting or consulting firms. Contractors participate in what is called the industrial security program administered by the Defense Industrial Security Clearance Office (DISCO) which is part of the Joint Information Systems Technology (JIST), a military agency.

One out of every thirty Americans has some sort of security clearance. It has been estimated that one out of every thousand of these can be expected to compromise the secrets they are entrusted with. Some need money, some can be blackmailed, some are disgruntled and want revenge and some are just sloppy. American industry is a prime target for espionage as well as domestic terrorism and white collar crime.

A security clearance is technically a license issued by the head of a department, division or agency of the federal government. The type of security clearance that one can be approved for also depends upon the department, division, or agency involved. For classification purposes, the types of security clearances are:

  • Confidential
  • Secret
  • Top Secret
    -Sensitive Compartmentalized Information (SCI)
    -Single Scope Background Investigation (SSBI)

The Confidential security clearance is the easiest to obtain. Whereas other classifications will almost always involve a background check by the Defense Investigative Service (DIS), clearance programs for a confidential classification may be operated by the agencies themselves, like the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Department of Energy (DoE), the Department of State, etc.

Secret (sometimes called "Ordinary Secret") and Top Secret classifications almost always have some amount of military involvement in the clearance process. These types of licenses are typically found in agencies like the CIA or NSA. One of the differences between Secret and Top Secret is how "expansive" the background check is, i.e., how far and deep the investigation goes into your dependents, friends and relatives.

SCI classifications are only cleared for a few people and the background investigation process as well as the continual monitoring is extremely intensive.

The amount of time it takes to receive a security clearance is usually between six months to one year, if all goes well. Rarely, if ever, are temporary clearances granted during the review process.

TYPES OF SECURITY CLEARANCES:

The scope of investigative work needed to grant a security clearance depends on the level of clearance being requested. There are three basic levels of security classification:

  • CONFIDENTIAL: This refers to material, which, if improperly disclosed, could be reasonably expected to cause some measurable damage to the national security. The vast majority of military personnel are given this very basic level of clearance. This level needs to be reinvestigated every fifteen years.*
  • SECRET: The unauthorized disclosure of secret information could be expected to cause serious damage to the national security. This level is reinvestigated every ten years.*
  •  TOP SECRET: Individuals with this clearance have access to information or material that could be expected to cause exceptionally grave damage to the national security if it was released without authorization. This level needs to be reinvestigated every five years.* 
  • * Reinvestigations are more important than the original investigation because those individuals who have held clearances longer are more likely to be working with increasingly critical information.

WHO CAN GET A SECURITY CLEARANCE?

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.

Currently, there are more than 500,000 background investigations pending for security clearance approval. When an individual is going through the process for clearance, it may take up to a year before a determination is made. This makes a military candidate who already has clearance even more appealing to a hiring company. If the company hires a person who will need to gain a clearance, they may wait over a year before the person is eligible to work on the project for which they were hired. This is a lot of lost time and money to a company. If they can identify a person who has the necessary clearances, such as a candidate with a military background, that person immediately becomes more valuable.

HOW DO YOU GET A SECURITY CLEARANCE?

There are three main phases to receiving a security clearance:
1. Contact your Program Manager or FSO

  1. The first phase is the application process. This involves verification of U.S. citizenship, fingerprinting and completion of the Personnel Security Questionnaire (SF‐86).
  2. The second phase involves the actual investigation of your background. Most of the background check is conducted by the Defense Security Service (DSS).
  3. 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 thirteen factors determined by the Department of Defense (DoD). Some examples of areas they consider 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.

HOW LONG ARE SECURITY CLEARANCES VALID?

A Periodic Reinvestigation (PR) is required every:

  • 5 years for a TOP SECRET Clearance
  • 10 years for a SECRET Clearance or
  • 15 years for a CONFIDENTIAL Clearance.

However, civilian and military personnel of DOD can be randomly reinvestigated before they are due for a PR.

A security clearance is a valuable commodity outside of the military. This is because civilian companies who do classified work for the Dept. of Defense (DoD), or a national security related contract, must bear the cost of security clearances for their employees and clearance investigations can cost several thousands of dollars. Because of this, many DoD contractors give hiring preference to ex‐military personnel with current clearances. However, you want to do your job‐hunting right away, after separation. Once your clearance expires, you cannot simply request that DoD issue a new one or conduct a Periodic Reinvestigation, simply to make your job‐hunting prospects easier. To be issued a clearance, or to renew your clearance by DoD, your present duties/assignment, or pending duties/assignment must require such access.

SECURITY CLEARANCE REQUIREMENTS

An individual cannot apply for Security Clearance. A cleared contractor or government entity must sponsor you. You either (a) must be an employee of or consultant for that cleared contractor, or (b) you've received and accepted a written offer of employment from the cleared contractor. That offer must also indicate your employment will begin within 30‐days of receiving your clearance.

The cleared contractor's Facility Security Officer (FSO) starts the process in two ways. First the FSO sends an investigation request through the Joint Personnel Adjudication System (JPAS). Second, the FSO has the employee complete a clearance application in the Electronic Questionnaires for Investigations Processing (e‐QIP). After review and approval of that information, the FSO submits the completed e‐QIP to the Defense Industrial Security Clearance
Office (DISCO) for review. Once DISCO approves the information, it is sent onto Office of Personnel Management (OPM), which conducts the actual investigation and sends the findings back to DISCO. DISCO then either gives clearance, or forwards the results to Defense Office of Hearings and Appeals (DOHA) for further action.