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The Clearance Process

ThinkstockPhotos-494414394Service, training and career development within the military equips many people with all the skills needed to step into desirable jobs within federal agencies or government contractors. In some cases, new veterans even have prospects of continuing their work for the same agencies they served while in uniform.

That transition, however, is not as simple or quick as many people would expect. The reality is that hiring and security clearance processes - even for transitioning military members - are complex and time-consuming. Consequently, a transitioning service member typically can't expect to to wrap up their military job on Friday afternoon and step into their new, civilian, government role come Monday morning.

Acquiring a security clearance as a civilian involves some different processes than military clearances and requires applicants to meet different - and sometimes changing - standards.

Consequently, it is very beneficial to learn about those processes long before leaving military service. By understanding the requirements, securing a job offer and starting the security clearance process while still in service, transitioning military members can greatly improve their chances of receiving their new security clearance. They can also improve their ability to start their desired civilian job soon after their military service ends.


Clearance steps and timelines

Different federal agencies - and the companies that complete contract work for them - operate on slightly different timelines when it comes to hiring individuals and vetting them for new security clearances. But every timeline is lengthy.

For example, according to intelligencecareers.gov, the average time it takes to land a job offer and security clearance to work at the National Security Agency is 23-31 weeks. Successful applicants for jobs with the Defense Intelligence Agency or Director of National Intelligence typically require 20-plus weeks to complete the hiring and security clearance procedures at those agencies while applicants to the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency typically need 24-plus weeks.

Although hiring processes vary somewhat from agency to agency, they involve several standard steps. An NSA hiring, for example, moves through the following steps.

  • During the first five weeks after receiving applications for a job opening, NSA HR officials and hiring managers vet resumes, conduct interviews and operational tests, and issue conditional job offers.

  • An applicant with a conditional job offer then completes the Standard Form (SF) 86 - Questionnaire for National Security Positions. In that form, an applicant is asked to provide information about residences, employment history, military service, education, spouse, relatives, and associates. The form includes questions relating to mental health, criminal activity, drug/alcohol use, credit, and allegiance to the United States. You will also be asked to sign a form allowing an investigator to access personal records. That process of thoroughly completing the SF 86 generally takes 3-4 weeks and is typically more challenging for transitioning military and veterans because, on average, they have experienced more foreign travel and contacts than civilian applicants and must account for all of those foreign experiences.

  • Around week 9, a background investigator begins to confirm details in the security clearance questionnaire. For a Top Secret clearance, the investigator will complete a Single Scope Background Investigation (SSBI). That includes a Personal Subject Interview (PRSI) and interviews with neighbors, employers, educators, references, and spouses/cohabitants. It also includes record checks with local law enforcement where the individual lived, worked, or went to school over the past 10 years.

  • Between weeks 12 and 23, the agency and the applicant schedule and complete psychological testing and a polygraph. For more on the polygraph, see 'Adjudication Standards' and 'Taking the Polygraph' below. NSA's psychological evaluations tend to focus on five factors:

    • Neuroticism, which measures a candidate's level of emotional adjustment and stability
    • Extroversion, which looks at the intensity of a candidate's personal interactions 
    • openness to Experience
    • Agreeableness, which shows the individual's ability to connect with others while retaining their sense of self
    • Conscientiousness
  • Typically between weeks 23 and 31, the agency completes its final review of the SSBI, polygraph and other tests, then authorizes the security clearance and extends the final job offer.

Facilitate Your Process

There are several things that the applicant can do to help this process move as quickly and smoothly as possible.

Prepare in advance for the SF 86: You don't have to wait until you receive a job offer to start working through the SF 86. Go to www.opm.gov/forms, download a copy of the SF 86 and begin compiling the needed information. It could enable you to start that new job a few weeks sooner.

Full, honest disclosure: Provide true and complete answers to questions on the SF 86 and to the investigators' questions. Applicants - including transitioning military who have been through background checks and security clearances before - sometimes try to "self-adjudicate." They might omit certain details they believe could be problematic in obtaining their security clearance. Failure to fully disclose, however, can prolong the background investigation, raise serious questions about the applicant's integrity and ultimately result in the denial of a security clearance or job offer.

Be prompt, be available: When a federal official contacts you for a Personal Subject Interview, a polygraph or other appointment, take the first available date. That practice will avoid prolonging the security clearance process and demonstrate your commitment to securing a clearance and starting work. Also keep the agency and investigator informed of your current address and full contact information.

Adjudication Standards

Eligibility for a security clearance for a civilian job at NSA and some other agencies is determined by 13 adjudicative criteria.

1. Allegiance to the United States

2. Foreign influence - Adjudicators will examine an applicant's foreign contacts and experiences to determine if the applicant has divided loyalties

3. Foreign preference - This category is primarily relevant to dual citizens. Examiners want to ensure an individual isn't taking advantage of the benefits of their other citizenship, such as traveling on a foreign passport.

4. Sexual behavior - Examiners will look for evidence of criminal sexual behavior, recent or frequent use of prostitutes, or viewing of child pornography.

5. Personal conduct - Examiners will look for evidence that an applicant has hidden or distorted some aspect of their personal information on the SF 86 and in other examinations.

6. Financial considerations - The most common reason why individuals, including transitioning military and veterans, are denied security clearances is mismanagement of their personal finances. Such a trait can make individuals vulnerable to foreign espionage and blackmail, and consequently untrustworthy with classified information.

7. Alcohol consumption - Examiners will look for signs of alcohol abuse, including instances of public intoxication and Driving Under the Influence (DUI) convictions.

8. Drug involvement - Examiners look for evidence of addiction, dependency, drug crimes or repeated drug use. Some agencies, such as NSA, will deny a security clearance due to occasional drug use. Many applicants are hesitant to disclose isolated instances of experimenting with drugs in their youth. Full disclosure is always the best course. As long as the applicant has not used drugs in recent years, those isolated youthful incidents are generally not grounds to deny a security clearance. Applicants, however, should be cautious about their behavior in states or countries where marijuana or other drugs are legal. Recent and/or repeated drug use in those settings typically is not excused.

9. Emotional, mental, and personality disorders - Examiners will look for evidence of untreated mental illness, unreliability or dysfunctional behavior.

10. Criminal conduct - Examiners will look for evidence of felonies, misdemeanors and infractions. As with youthful drug experiments, a youthful infraction can be tolerated if the applicant has demonstrated good behavior since and has good character references.

11. Security violations - These can range from repeatedly failing to lock a safe to showing a callous attitude towards your duties. They are any behaviors that suggest the applicant might fail to properly handle classified information.

12. Outside activities - Examiners will explore the applicant's outside activities and personal connections to identify any situation that might present a serious risk.

13. Misuse of Information Technology Systems - This category covers such activities as excessive illegal downloading of music, misuse of a workplace computer system (for example, to access pornography) or hacking.

Taking the Polygraph

To obtain a security clearance for a civilian position at NSA and some other federal agencies, applicants must take a Full Scope polygraph which covers both counterintelligence and lifestyle issues. Consequently, the test can include questions about espionage, sabotage, terrorist activities, deliberate damage of government information systems or secret contacts with foreign agents, as well as questions about you involvement with drugs, alcohol, crime, financial mismanagement or efforts to falsify your SF 86.

Polygraphs can be intimidating so it's helpful to understand the process and follow a few best practices.

The Process: The polygraph is completed in three phases. During the pre-test phase, the examiner reviews the releases which the applicant needs to sign, and explains the equipment used in the test. The examiner and applicant talk through all the questions that will be asked and the applicant can raise any questions or concerns about the test. Experts urge applicants to treat this as a conversation and an opportunity to get more comfortable with the process.

During the test, the examiner asks the pre-approved questions as well as several irrelevant questions. The examiner asks the set of questions several times in order to obtain better readings. Examiners realize that many candidates feel stress during the polygraph and can adjust their equipment accordingly.

Following the test, the examiner and applicant may discuss any answers that generated an inconclusive result or that suggest deception. They may develop an alternate, preferable way to ask about the same topic.

Applicants get three opportunities to take the polygraph before a final adjudication of their security clearance application is completed.

Best Practices: Polygraph experts recommend applicants avoid over-preparing for polygraphs and simply treat them as honest (if somewhat unusual) conversations.

  • Provide true and complete information on your SF 86, and answer the examiner's questions truthfully, promptly and completely. Address sensitive and even problematic topics honestly. Any effort to conceal or downplay such issues could lead an examiner to conclude that an applicant is being deceptive.

  • Avoid researching polygraph strategies online. Many websites contain misinformation about polygraphs, including so-called strategies for passing or beating a polygraph. Such sites can be misguiding, heighten an applicants' stress level and even lead an examiner to suspect deception.

  • Follow your normal routine preceding the polygraph - get a typical night's sleep, eat your typical diet, go to the gym, etc. Some stress is common among individuals taking polygraphs. So do the things that make the day feel normal and make you feel comfortable so that you can minimize your stress.
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