Top Secret Security Clearance: How Easy Is It to Get, Really?

Privacy, NakedLaw, Rights

You may have seen the recent Washington Post report that revealed approximately 854,000 people have top-secret U.S. government security clearance. There are 33 buildings in the Washington D.C. metro area alone, totaling 17 million square feet of space, devoted to top-secret intelligence work.

It seems a bit counter-intuitive for the equivalent of the entire population of South Dakota, and then some, to have access to classified national security information, so can just anyone get top-secret security clearance? How difficult is it, really?

Automatic disqualifiers

Certain things will exclude you automatically from receiving any kind of security clearance in the U.S. Convicted felons sentenced to more than one year in prison, people currently addicted to any sort of controlled substance, mental incompetence as determined by a Department of Defense-approved mental health professional, or a dishonorable discharged from the military will leave you right out.

Top secret jobs

Assuming that none of the above applies to you, the first step to obtaining a security clearance is to find a job that requires one. You can’t just stroll into your local FBI office and ask for top-secret clearance; you must apply for a job with a company or agency that requires clearance. Alternatively, certain positions in the Armed Forces require various levels of clearance. After an agency has requested an investigation for top secret clearance, you’ll fill out a standard questionnaire for national security positions. This 18-page form covers every place you’ve lived and worked in the past 10 years, contact information for immediate family members, travel history, any contacts you’ve had with “foreign nationals,” use of alcohol and drugs, financial records, and mental health status, among other highly personal information.

Investigating everyone you’ve ever known

Submitting this form triggers the main part of the clearance process, the Single Scope Background Investigation (SSBI). The investigation is conducted by the State Department’s Office of Personnel Security and Suitability, Bureau of Diplomatic Security. Diplomatic Security investigators are located all over the world and conduct all national agency and credit history checks, as well as interviews and law enforcement investigations. For top secret clearance your spouse or cohabitant is also subject to an extensive background investigation.  People who know you well will be contacted, possibly including family, friends, neighbors, employers, co-workers and teachers, and asked about your trustworthiness, patriotism, finances and legal troubles.

It gets personal

You’ll also have to undergo an interview with an investigator. The questions will reiterate information from your application and background investigation, and clear up any details of your professional and personal life the investigator needs more detail on. Personal history and experiences, travels, health, finances and family background are all fair game. You’ll also have to take a polygraph test.

When all forms have been submitted and all interviews conducted, your application for security clearance goes to the adjudication phase. Adjudicators compare the investigators’ results against Department of Defense guidelines, including allegiance to the United States, criminal and personal conduct, history of substance abuse or mental disorders, and determine if you get your top secret security clearance.

You could be waiting a long time

The Office of Personnel Security and Suitability conducts about 25,000 of these interviews annually, for clearances at all three security levels. The process generally takes between four and eight months, but with the current Department of Defense backlog it can take more than a year to receive top secret clearance.  Additionally it will take longer if there are any factors in your background which suggest untrustworthiness or unreliability, extensive foreign travel or work outside the U.S., or foreign nationals in your immediate family. Any of these factors not well explained will get you a rejection. Top secret clearances must be renewed every five years, which contributes to the backlog as well.

Not exactly easy, but perhaps not hard enough?

So clearly, it’s not exactly easy to get top secret security clearance, but then again, who are all these people who have it, and why? That’s not easy to determine either, since the payrolls and employment figures for some government agencies, such as the CIA are, well, top secret.