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What is the Deal about Security Clearances?

Why do governments have security clearances, and what are the factors in eligibility?

people using a computer to review security clearance

History is full of incidents where trust has been broken and secrets revealed, sold, or stolen. This is not just a recent sensation, as it has always been a lottery chance to ask someone to keep a secret and hope they have enough character and loyalty to live up to that verbal or written agreement. There are many reasons why people divulge secrets: money, power, revenge, blackmail, politics, injustice, and a variety of other reasons.


What is a Security Clearance?

A security clearance is a determination by the government that an individual is eligible and trustworthy to access classified information. This process involves an in-depth background investigation into the individual's personal, professional, and financial history. The purpose of a security clearance is to ensure that only individuals with a demonstrated loyalty to the country and a commitment to protecting sensitive information have access to classified material.

A security clearance allows an individual filling a specific position to have access to classified national security information up to and including the level of clearance that they hold as long as the individual has a “need to know” the information and signed a non-disclosure agreement. - U.S. State Department

The question is, what can be done to predict the integrity of a person? Well, it’s not as easy as it seems, nor is it always certain. A person’s character can be categorized by their history, their behavior, their relationships, associations, affiliations, statements, and beliefs. The thing that is not unfailing is circumstance, as there is no guarantee that a person will never deter from their normal character. However, human nature is often predictable, so who you were yesterday normally defines who you are today.


What must be determined is whether you are trustworthy, and that is accomplished by peeling the layers back to assess specific character traits. The United States Department of State, for example, considers the factors below in determining your eligibility for a security clearance (U.S. Department of State, 2022).


Eligibility Factors

• Are you a stable person, or do you have a history of financial, alcohol/drug, relationship, and/or legal problems?

• Are you a reliable person, or are you always late for work, missing deadlines, failing tasks, and/or not doing the things you said you would?

• Are you discreet, or are you the person who puts your business, or everyone else’s business, out there on social media?

• What kind of person are you? If asked, how would others define your character?

• Are you known as someone that is honest and straightforward, or would others say you lie?

• Do you have a history of making sound decisions, or do you have a history of making questionable choices?

• Do you have unquestionable loyalty to the United States?

You may be reading this thinking that the only people eligible are those who have been hiding in a cave their whole lives, and things we see in society may provide some credence to this thought. However, it is important to know that even though human beings are imperfect, the ultimate goal is to find those who have displayed consistent credibility.

There is an old saying that the best way to keep a secret is not to tell anyone. While that sounds easy, it is not applicable when dealing with corporate and government operations that require multiple participants to keep the operation flowing. We can’t control everything, but we can limit information to who has a need to know, how many people have a need to know, what information is accessible, and the type of clearance needed.


Clearances come in several types, with each focusing on the severity of damage that information if leaked, will cause. Now, keep in mind that you can’t just wake up in the morning and say, “You know, I am going to go get a top-secret clearance today.” That is not quite how it works. On the other hand, just because someone doesn’t have a clearance doesn’t mean they are untrustworthy. The issue is they don’t have the need to know or are not in a position that requires a clearance. Let’s suppose, for the moment you have a need to know and in a position that requires a clearance. In this situation, you are not automatically awarded a clearance. You still have to pass the background investigation for that particular level of clearance.


The Three Levels of Security Clearances in America

According to the United States Government Department of State, there are three levels of security clearances: Confidential, Secret, and Top Secret. However, before we dig into these, we’ll need to learn about Public Trusts.


Public Trusts

A Public Trust is not categorized as a security clearance but rather someone whose duties require trust and typically does not have access to classified information. These trusted souls may have access to Personal Identifiable Information (PII) like dates of birth or Social Security Numbers (SSN), which are sensitive to personal information but not the same as classified information. Public Trust positions require a background check and are designated for individuals whose duties normally require access to sensitive personal information.

Now, we are ready to dive into security clearances. It should be noted that each level of clearance requires different degrees of investigative background research, and those levels are determined by the employer or agency based on position and duties.

1. Confidential Level

Confidential: Granted to individuals who require access to classified information that could cause damage to national security if disclosed.


2. Secret Level

Secret (S): Granted to individuals who require access to sensitive information that could cause severe damage to national security if disclosed.


3. Top Secret Level

Top Secret (TS): Granted to individuals requiring access to information that could cause grave damage to national security if disclosed.


Top Secret/SCI (TS/SCI): Granted to individuals who require access to Top Secret information and information classified as Sensitive Compartmented Information (SCI). SCI is a subset of Top-Secret information that is even more sensitive and is only granted to individuals with a demonstrated need to know.


Top Secret/SCI with Polygraph (TS/SCI-P): Similar to the TS/SCI clearance but requires a polygraph examination as part of the clearance process.

Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmented Information with Counterintelligence Polygraph (TS/SCI-CIP): Similar to the TS/SCI-P clearance but includes a Counterintelligence Polygraph examination in addition to the standard polygraph. This clearance is required for individuals with access to sensitive compartmented information related to counterintelligence activities.

Top Secret/SCI with Full Scope Polygraph (TS/SCI-FSP): Similar to the TS/SCI-P clearance but includes a Full Scope Polygraph examination in addition to the standard polygraph. The Full Scope Polygraph is a more comprehensive examination that covers a broader range of topics than the standard polygraph. This clearance is required for individuals with access to particularly sensitive information or in positions of high trust.

A clearance is not just a privilege but a responsibility that the United States and its people demand complete compliance. Each of us are responsible - not only those with a clearance - to protect our national security and interests. If working for a company or corporation on behalf of the United States Government, the need to have a process to vet and confirm the character and trustworthiness of its potential and current employees is critical.


Industries with Security Clearances

Government and Military: Many roles within government agencies, military branches, and intelligence organizations require security clearances. This includes positions in defense, law enforcement, intelligence analysis, and more.


Contracting and Consulting: Private companies that work on government contracts, especially those involving classified projects, may require employees to have security clearances. This includes roles in defense contracting, technology development, and consulting.


Information Technology (IT): IT professionals who work on projects involving classified information or government systems may need security clearances. This can include roles in cybersecurity, software development, and system administration.


Research and Development: Scientists, engineers, and researchers working on classified projects or in areas with national security implications may need security clearances.


Foreign Service: Diplomats and employees of the U.S. Department of State may require security clearances, especially if they are involved in sensitive diplomatic or intelligence-related activities.


Homeland Security: Positions within agencies focused on homeland security, border protection, and emergency management may require security clearances.


Security Clearance FAQ's

What is the purpose of a security clearance?

The purpose of a security clearance is to allow an individual access to classified national security information.


Can I apply for a security clearance?

No. Applicants cannot initiate a security clearance application on their own.


Who determines whether I need a security clearance? When does this happen?

Hiring officials determine whether a Department of State position will require a security clearance based on the duties and responsibilities of the position. If the position requires access to classified information, a background investigation must be conducted. This is done after a conditional offer of employment is given to an applicant.


Do I have to be a U.S. citizen to receive a security clearance from the Department of State?

Yes. When the Department of State’s mission has compelling reasons, however, immigrant alien and foreign national employees who possess special expertise may, at the discretion of the Department of State, be granted limited access to classified information only for specific programs, projects, contracts, licenses, certificates, or grants.


Who decides the level of clearance?

The Department of State’s Bureau of Global Talent Management determines whether a position will require a security clearance, as well as the level required, based on the duties and responsibilities of the position and using OPM’s Position Designation Tool.


Written by: Dean Barker & Phil Tabor


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