A security clearance is a determination by the United States government that a person is eligible for access to classified information. To get one (and virtually all managerial positions require one), you need to complete a standard Form 86 (SF-86) Questionnaire. This 136-page document (also known as the e-QIP) forms the basis for government background investigations, re-investigations and ongoing assessments of anyone considered for obtaining or maintaining a position of national security. The information required of a candidate is extensive – where you have lived and traveled, your education and work history, any connection to foreign nationals and governments, criminal records, drug and alcohol use, and all relevant psychological conditions and much more.
Your SF-86 Questionnaire will be checked and reviewed very carefully. If your documents are accurate and complete, and there are no red flags, your investigation file should be processed promptly in the system. However, if your documents are inaccurate or incomplete, you create additional work for analysts and reviewers, investigators and adjudicators, and your case can drag on. Plus, investigators get a glimpse of what type of person you are just by looking at how you filled out your SF-86.
There are five requirements to consider before submitting your SF-86:
Be honest. It goes without saying that anyone requesting access to highly protected national security information – which, if improperly disclosed, could cause “exceptionally serious damage to the nation” – must show that they uphold ethical standards. highest in all aspects of his life. Lying or omitting on the SF-86 will almost automatically disqualify you. Always, always, always tell the truth (even when it hurts).
Be precise. The SF-86 is extremely long and comprehensive, containing questions and sub-questions that delve into the smallest details of your life. If you are unsure of the date of your trip to France, but know it was in 2018 or 2019 (you’re in luck, just before the COVID-19 pandemic), don’t just guess. Take the time to research your own past to make sure all of the information on your SF-86 is correct.
Take your time and read the question. Different sections of the SF-86 request information from different time periods, and some federal agencies include an addendum requesting additional information. Just because you submitted an SF-86 for an agency does not means you can complete without thinking the SF-86 from another agency. Be sure to carefully read and understand the scope of each question each time you are asked to complete the SF-86.
Be complete. In your rush to complete the application (I understand; it’s a tedious process, but the US government won’t be understanding), don’t leave anything out. You cannot include almost all your trips abroad, but forget about that trip to Tijuana, Mexico. or list almost all your foreign contacts, but forget about the two Russian foreign nationals who play on your weekly football team (in the pre-pandemic period, of course). Or divulge all the times you smoked marijuana, but forget about the time you tried your roommate’s Adderall as well. At worst, these mistakes will make you feel like you’re lying. At best, they make you look carefree. Judgment is a critical part of security clearance determinations, and you must convince the government that you can count on yourself to reliably protect the nation’s secrets.
Explain. Everyone has a past. Most people have lived a busy life before taking a job that requires security clearance: maybe you got into trouble with the law in high school, made some bad decisions (this prostitute did- you solicited?) since overcome. You did the right thing by being honest, precise and complete on the form, but you also need to explain what happened and how you changed. The passage of time helps a lot, but you should also include some important milestones or other accomplishments that take you away from who you were when you engaged in the previous bad behavior. Take advantage of the SF-86 opportunities that invite you to provide additional information and explain the issues in your context.
In short, if you follow the above rules and do it right the first time, you will make the security clearance application process much easier and less stressful, and you will likely get your clearance much sooner.
Nina Ren is an associate at the federal employment law firm Kalijarvi, Chuzi, Newman & Fitch, PC in Washington, DC She is the co-chair of the firm’s security clearance law practice, representing federal employees and contractors whose clearances have been threatened or suspended, or whose fitness for federal employment has been challenged. She can be reached at [email protected].