Clearing the Main Hurdle
Many of you who are entering the U.S. government, particularly in the foreign policy and security policy fields, will have to go through the security clearance process. This process, while intimidating, should rarely be a cause for concern and there are a number of steps you can take to make the process as easy as possible. Please note that this is general information. If your hiring authority provides different information, consider that to supercede the information below.
What is Security Clearance?
Holding a U.S. government security clearance allows an employee to access classified information. Clearances are issued at three levels, confidential, secret, and top secret. At each level, clearance holders have access to different types of information on the basis of their job duties. Different agencies have levels within Top Secret (including TS/SCI – allowing access to Sensitive Compartmentalized Information or SAP – Special Access Program Information). They may also call it something different than Top Secret clearance, such as the Department of Energy’s “Q” clearance.
What is the Goal of the Process?
The primary purpose of the clearance is to determine whether a job candidate is determined to be able to maintain classified information. The government is looking for trustworthy applicants with high levels of reliability, loyalty, and character.
What does the Process Look Like?
Once a federal agency extends a conditional employment offer, the agency human resources contact will provide information about the necessary paperwork for clearance positions. This is usually centered around Standard Form (SF) 86, the Questionnaire for National Security Positions. This information on the form is for the last 10 years (although some forms will list the last ten years or until 18, whichever is closer), detailing residences, jobs, contacts, legal issues, education and much more.
In addition the SF-86, agencies may require fingerprints, personal interviews, credit examinations, polygraph test, or other additional materials at the request of the agency. This can often be a lot of material.
How Long Does It Take?
It is challenging to predict how long each clearance case will take, as each individual investigation is unique. However, when the hiring Department issues the clearance paperwork and a prospective employee completes the paperwork correctly and promptly, the time allocated is usually sufficient.
Are Clearances Transferable?
Possibly. According to the State Department, clearances are normally accepted by other agencies if the investigation was completed in the last 10 years (5 years for Top Secret Clearance) and there has been no more than a two year break in service.
Do I need to take a polygraph test?
For a secret level clearance, generally no polygraph test is needed. However, this may be necessary, based on the needs and policies of the hiring authority.