Security Clearance FAQ

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A security clearance is a specific designation required for any employee or government contractor who performs duties for the U.S. Government that require access to classified information. A security clearance may be required even when working in a building or area where such information may be stored. A security clearance allows people filling specific positions to have access to classified national security information up to and including the level of security clearance they hold, provided they have a need to know the information to perform their duties.

When you apply for security clearance through the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD), you are asked to complete an Electronic Questionnaire for Investigations Processing (e-QIP). Depending on the level of clearance you are requesting, you may need to include information about your:

  • Foreign contacts and affiliations
  • Family relationships
  • Past and current roommates and friends
  • Work history
  • Criminal history
  • Military service
  • Locations lived
  • Citizenship(s)
  • Financial history
  • Travel history
  • Groups or affiliations
  • Character references
  • Prior drug and alcohol use
  • Mental health conditions


Some sections of the questionnaire for Confidential and Secret security clearances asks you to provide information for the previous seven years. While some questions are pertaining to an indefinite period.  A secret clearance requires the agency to reinvestigate every ten years.  A top secret clearance requires a reinvestigation ever five years.

Most security clearances are issued by the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD). The three types of DoD security clearances include:

  • Confidential Security Clearance – This is the lowest level of security clearance. It allows the holder to access information or material that may cause damage to national security if disclosed without authorization. As part of the investigative process, the applicant’s foreign employment, immediate relatives and marriages, and other personal relationships are scrutinized. Confidential security clearances are re-investigated every 15 years, with the clearance either renewed or revoked at that time.
  • Secret Security Clearance – This security clearance level provides access to information or material that may cause serious damage to national security if disclosed without authorization. It requires a National Agency Check, a Local Agency Check, and a credit investigation. Bankruptcy and unpaid bills, as well as criminal charges, may disqualify an applicant. A poor financial history is the primary reason for rejection, and foreign activities and criminal record are also common causes for disqualification. Secret security clearances are re-investigated every 10 years, and are either renewed or revoked at that time.
  • Top Secret Security – This is the highest level of security clearance. It provides access to information or material that may cause exceptionally grave damage to national security if disclosed without authorization. In addition to generic Top Secret clearance, there is also Sensitive Compartmented Information (SCI) and Special Access Program (SAP) clearance. SCI clearance is required for information that must be contained within a certain group of people, while SAP clearance is needed to work on a particular top secret project, often one that’s so secret that its existence cannot be acknowledged. Top Secret security clearances are reinvestigated, and either renewed or revoked, every five years.


The U.S. Department of Energy (DoE) issues two levels of security clearances:

  • Q Clearance – Allows access to classified information up to and including Top Secret data
  • L Clearance – Allows access to classified information up to and including Secret data

Other U.S. government agencies, such as the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department, also issue security clearances.

A collateral clearance is a security clearance without any special access authorizations, such as COMSEC or NATO. Confidential, Secret and Top Secret security clearances are all collateral clearances. A security clearance with a caveat is a collateral clearance plus a special access. In order to have the special access, you typically receive a briefing related to the caveat.

You can access classified national security information when you have the appropriate level of security clearance (Confidential, Secret or Top Secret) and a need to know. All classified national security information exists within one of two need-to-know areas – formal or informal. When you have an informal need to know information, you are said to have access to collateral classified information. When you have a formal need to know certain information, you are said to have special access authorization. Special access authorization with formal need-to-know access exists within Special Access Programs (SAPs), including Sensitive Compartmented Information (SCI) and Restricted Data (RD).

To be eligible for Sensitive Compartmented Information (SCI) clearance, you must:

  • Be nominated for an SCI billet
  • Pass a Single Scope Background Investigation (SSBI)
  • Be approved by the appropriate government agency


SCI includes several categories of compartmented information. Central Adjudication Facilities (CAFs) grant you eligibility for access to SCI. Once your eligibility has been established, you can be granted special access authorization for a specific category of information within SCI.


SCI access eligibility is divided into three sensitivity levels, with each requiring you to undergo different types of investigations, including:

  • SSBI without polygraph
  • SSBI with Counterintelligence Scope polygraph
  • SSBI with Full Scope polygraph

Special Access Programs (SAPs) are used for particular types of classified information. Each SAP imposes safeguards and access restrictions that go beyond those normally required for information at the same classification level. Some SAPs are so restricted that their very existence is classified information. These are called “black” programs. SCIs are actually categorized as SAPs as well.

Once you complete the minimum requirements for a collateral security clearance investigation, you may be granted interim eligibility on a temporary basis, pending the completion of the full investigation for the final clearance. All defense contractor employees are considered for interim clearances. Interim clearances can be withdrawn whenever significant unfavorable information is uncovered about you during the investigation. Interim access eligibility for Sensitive Compartmented Information (SCI) and Special Access Programs (SAP), however, are granted only under very limited circumstances.

At one time, the Defense Industrial Security Clearance Office (DISCO) was part of the Defense Security Service (DSS), an agency of the Department of Defense (DoD). DISCO processed and ruled on Personnel Security Clearances (PCLs) and Facility Security Clearances (FCLs) for defense contractor individuals and facilities. In late 2012, DISCO became part of the Industry Division of the DoD Consolidated Adjudication Facility. The FCL division of DISCO remained at DSS, and the portion of DISCO that processed contractor PCLs was transferred to the DSS Personnel Security Management Office for Industry (PSMO-I).

The DoD CAF determines whether people not affiliated with a federal intelligence agency are eligible for security clearances. This includes all military service members, civilian employees, and consultants affiliated with the DoD. It also includes DoD personnel at the White House and contractor personnel under the National Industrial Security Program (NISP), as well staff of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, the Congressional Budget Office, the United States Capitol Police, and the Supreme Court. Additionally, the DoD CAF determines employment suitability of DoD civilian employees and Common Access Card (CAC) or fitness eligibility of non-cleared DoD contractors.

The DOHA holds hearings and issues security clearance decisions for government contractor employees doing classified work for the DoD and other federal agencies and departments. If a contractor employee applies for security clearance through the DoD CAF and the request is deemed questionable, the DoD CAF forwards the case to the DOHA for further consideration. If the DOHA adjudicator cannot decide, the case is then sent to an Administrative Judge (AJ) at the DOHA. Among other tasks, the DOHA also issues decisions in security clearance cases for DoD civilian employees and military personnel.

Generally, as long as you’re employed by a cleared contractor or government agency, and you continue to need access to classified information, your security clearance will remain active, provided you comply with periodic reinvestigation requirements.

Current reinvestigations are done based on the following timetable:

  • Top Secret clearances – every six years, except for certain Special Access Programs or Industry cases, where five years is mandated (with a DoD stated goal of reducing all reinvestigations to every five years)
  • Secret clearances – every ten years (with a DoD stated goal of reducing this to every five years)
  • Confidential clearances – every ten years (with a DoD stated goal of reducing this to every five years)

If funding permits, a certain percentage of reinvestigations are done on a random basis in between these time periods. Further, if concerns arise during the time you have access to classified information, your federal employer or an investigative agency may conduct a review outside the normal periodic reinvestigation process to determine whether you should still be eligible for access to classified information. If the concerns are serious enough, your access to the classified information may be suspended pending resolution of the review.

When you permanently leave the position for which the security clearance was granted, your security clearance is terminated. If you no longer require access to classified information but you continue to be employed by the same cleared contractor or agency, you can have your clearance administratively downgraded or withdrawn until you need access again, so long as your security clearance investigation has not gone out of date.

When an employer asks you about your security clearance status, you know that you either have a clearance or you don’t. The terms “active,” “current,” and “expired” commonly mean the following:

  • Active – a clearance that hasn’t been terminated
  • Current – a terminated clearance that’s still eligible for reinstatement
  • Expired – a terminated clearance that’s no longer eligible for reinstatement

In addition, the Personnel Security Investigation (PSI) on which the clearance is based can be either “current” or “out of date.”

How can you check your DoD security clearance status? To determine the current status of your security clearance, contact the personnel security office of the agency that granted your clearance. If you’re a contract employee, your company’s facility security officer should also be able to help you.

Yes. You can get a security clearance reinstated after it has been terminated by the agency that originally granted the clearance, provided you previously had a clearance and the investigation has not gone out of date. Your security clearance can also be reciprocally granted by a different agency, so long as there hasn’t been a break in your service to the agency of two years or more. For clearances involving special access authorizations, a new SF86 may be required if you have not needed access to the information for more than 60 days or if a polygraph examination is required.

Interim clearance (also known as “interim eligibility”) is a temporary security clearance. Interim clearance is granted pending the completion of the full investigative requirements for the final clearance. If you work for a defense contractor, you will be considered for interim security clearance. To get interim clearance, you must complete the minimum investigative requirements. Once the authority providing the clearance receives a properly completed SF86, you may be granted an interim Secret and Top Secret clearance within five to ten days.

With a security interim clearance, you have access to classified material at all levels up to the level of the clearance you were granted. However, you cannot use an interim Secret clearance to access special categories of classified information, such as COMSEC, Restricted Data, and NATO. On the other hand, you may use interim Top Secret clearance to access most Top Secret information as well as COMSEC, Restricted Data, and NATO information at the Secret and Confidential (but not Top Secret) levels.

If your interim clearance wasn’t granted, it’s called “Eligibility Pending.” Denial of interim security can be made for any reason. Also, the granting agency can withdraw your interim security clearances at any time, especially if they uncover significant unfavorable information during the investigation. You may not appeal the denial or withdrawal of your interim clearance. The DoD CAF is not required to give you a reason for denying or withdrawing your interim clearance, but you can get this information by requesting it through the Privacy Act.

SSBI (Single Scope Background Investigation)

In September 2016, the SSBI was replaced by the Tier 5 security clearance background investigation. More detailed than the Tier 3 investigation, the Tier 5 investigation is required for Top Secret clearance, for Sensitive Compartmented Information (SCI) access, and for designated Special Access Programs (SAP) at the Secret level.

Information regarding the exact scope and period of coverage of the Tier 5 investigation is not publicly available, but it is similar to the SSBI, which included:

  • A National Agency Check
  • A credit check
  • Law enforcement record checks
  • An Enhanced Subject Interview (ESI)
  • Interviews of former spouses
  • Interviews of character, employment, neighborhood, and educational references
  • Reviews of residence, employment, and academic records


SSBI-PR (Single Scope Background Investigation – Periodic Reinvestigation)

In October 2016, the SSBI-PR was replaced by the Tier 5R security clearance background reinvestigation. Prior to that, SSBI-PR was the standard periodic reinvestigation tool for a Top Secret clearance and was conducted every five years. An SSBI-PR included:

  • A National Agency Check
  • Credit check
  • Law enforcement record checks
  • An Enhanced Subject Interview (ESI)
  • References interviews
  • Record reviews covering at least the past five years

The scope and time intervals of Tier 5R investigations are not made public.


PPR (Phased Periodic Reinvestigation)

In October 2016, the PPR was replaced by the Tier 5R investigation. The PPR investigation was similar to the SSBI-PR, but it included limited reference interviews and record reviews. Like the SSBI-PR, the PPR was also conducted every five years.


Tier 5R Investigation

The Tier 5R investigation replaced both the SSBI-PR and the PPR in October 2016. Information regarding the exact scope and period of coverage of the Tier 5R investigation is not publicly available, but based on the SSBI-PR it likely includes at least the following:

  • A National Agency Check
  • Credit check
  • Law enforcement record checks
  • An Enhanced Subject Interview (ESI)
  • References interviews
  • Record reviews covering at least the past five years

Top Secret clearance holders are reinvestigated at least once every five years. Their security clearance is also reevaluated on a random or continuous basis between investigative cycles.


Cyber Vetting

Released in May 2016, Security Executive Agent Directive 5 authorized federal agencies to collect, use, and retain publicly available social media information for personnel security background investigations and adjudications. This investigative tool is also called cyber vetting. Agencies, though, are not required to use cyber vetting for potential employees in making security clearance decisions and have presumably implemented Directive 5 on an agency-by-agency basis. Also, Directive 5 does not give investigators the power to request or require applicants to provide passwords to private social media accounts. Agencies are additionally restricted from entering an applicant’s private accounts through a third party.


Reimbursable Suitability Investigation (RSI)

According to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, an agency may request an RSI investigation when it needs additional investigation to:

  • Resolve issues (such as alcohol or drug rehabilitation, or credit concerns)
  • Establish a history or pattern of behavior
  • Obtain other information related to suitability or security

The RSI is not a background or criminal investigation.


Trustworthiness Investigation

The DoD performs a trustworthiness investigation when conducting a background investigation for a person nominated for a non-critical sensitive position, or for a critical sensitive national security position that does not involve access to classified information. Non-critical sensitive positions require the same investigation and reinvestigation required for a Secret clearance, while critical sensitive positions require the same investigation and reinvestigation required for a Top Secret clearance. The same standards used for security clearances is also used when trustworthiness investigations are adjudicated.


Federal Employment Suitability Investigation

A Federal Employment Suitability Investigation is conducted on any federal employee who is newly hired or about to be hired through the competitive civil service process. The type of background investigation depends on the risk level of the position the employee or candidate will occupy. Levels include low risk, moderate risk, and high risk. A favorable adjudication for any risk level automatically makes an applicant eligible for a Personal Identity Verification (PIV) card, which is required by Homeland Security. A single investigation can be completed that fulfills the requirements of both suitability and security clearance if the employee requires national security clearance.


Federal Employment Fitness Investigation

A Federal Employment Fitness Investigation requires the same process as a Federal Employment Suitability Investigation, with the only difference being that Fitness investigations are conducted on newly hired, excepted service employees. Excepted positions are not in the competitive service or the Senior Executive service. These investigations can involve different adjudicative criteria and procedures than Suitability investigations. These investigations are also conducted on federal contractor personnel being considered for public trust positions or Personal Identity Verification (PIV) cards required by Homeland Security. Within DoD, a PIV is called a Common Access Card (CAC).

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