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Understanding Government Security Clearance

There are three basic levels of security clearance: Confidential, Secret, and Top Secret. A Confidential clearance would allow the holder to view documents or be privy to information which, if improperly disclosed, could cause some damage to national security. The Confidential clearance must be reinvestigated every 15 years.

Most military personnel have this level of clearance. A Secret clearance is the next level higher, and must be reinvestigated every ten years. The third level, the Top Secret clearance, must be reinvestigated every five years. Within each of these groupings, there are still more specialized clearances, and holding a clearance for one category of information does not automatically authorize you to have access to other information at the same clearance level.

Security Clearance Process

The clearance process does not begin until you sign a conditional offer of employment. The way your agency handles your employment during the investigation will vary. Some government contractors start employing conditional hires right away while their investigation is underway. Their ability to do this, and the work you will be given, depends greatly on the project and the sensitivity of the information. For the majority of people, however, the employer will not take you on until the entire clearance process is complete. This can mean a delay of a few months to a year (or even more).

According to the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency's Director of Recruitment, Brandi Lowe, there are several stages to the clearance process.

In general, the phases are application, investigation, and adjudication.

In the initial round of questions, you will have to provide names of friends and family members, previous addresses from many years in the past, and you will have to disclose relationships with foreign nationals. It is important to remember that you have nothing to hide - the investigators do not expect that you would have lived in a bubble your entire life. Remember that you are at the beginning of what will hopefully become a long-term employment relationship, and like any relationship, it all begins with trust. Be open. Share information up-front. Provide whatever your investigators ask for.

Once investigators begin checking you out, you will probably hear from your friends and neighbors that an investigator came around asking a lot of nosey questions. These questions may include asking for observations about your behavior and lifestyle:

  • Does the car he drive seem consistent with what you know his employment to be?
  • Does he take extended vacations to undisclosed locations?
  • Do suspicious characters lurk around his house, or does he have extensive dealings with foreign nationals?
  • Have you ever observed him behaving in a way that made you think he was under the influence of illegal drugs?

The investigators' questions are usually somewhat intrusive, so you can expect that you will start to hear when they are making the rounds. The investigators will also ask your friends for suggestions of other friends they can talk to who may know you well.

Also, if you are related to foreign nationals, even by marriage, you can expect that your investigator will look into those relationships. Again, these are not disqualifiers, it is just a part of the security clearance process to investigate and make sure you have no huge conflicts of interest or competition for your allegiance.