Protect your security clearance


One of the most valuable commodities in and around the federal community is the security clearance. A clearance is not a legal right, but rather a status granted by the government as an indication of trust placed in an individual. Even though federal employees and contractors do not have a right to a clearance, it cannot be taken away from someone without some due process. Part of this due process includes a recitation of reasons and circumstances that could result in the loss of a clearance. These are called “adjudicative guidelines” and they are consistent governmentwide, even in agencies such as the CIA and National Security Agency.

The Defense Department conducts more security clearance cases in a transparent way than any federal agency. Anyone interested in learning more about security clearances and how to lose one can go to this website and click on Industrial Security Program to read the adjudicative guidelines and case decisions where security clearances have been granted or denied. Even though federal employees are not covered by the industrial program, the same principles and guidelines apply.

If a job requires a clearance, an employee will lose his job if he loses his clearance. Reasons for losing a clearance are extensive. They include:

Lying. Tell the truth on security clearance questionnaires and in the interview. The surest way to have a clearance revoked is to be less than honest. Background investigators are adept at finding problem areas in your past, so it is better to answer all questions carefully and accurately. When filling out the SF-86 or other background investigation forms, read the instructions. Often, an answer that you think is a problem will be disqualifying. Lying about it or trying to hide or minimize it is almost a guaranteed reason for denial of a clearance.

Using illegal drugs while having a clearance. Any prior drug use will be examined and may be disqualifying depending on how often and the type of drugs used, whether use was experimental, and how recent use was. Drug use before having a clearance can be explained and balanced, and a clearance might be granted. Drug use while holding a clearance is much more problematic, and while it does not result in automatic clearance revocation, it takes more explaining to keep a clearance.

Misuse of alcohol. Serious misuse of alcohol to the point where it is a problem in your life could cause a security clearance problem. A long period of sobriety and a treatment program might save your clearance.

Dual citizenship. Dual citizenship by itself is not a problem. But traveling outside the U.S. on a foreign passport could cause the loss of security clearance, particularly at DoD.

Criminal activity. Recent criminal activity, particularly a felony, could result in the loss of a clearance. One area of occasional confusion (although it should not be if the security clearance form is closely read) is about criminal records that are expunged. Even if a crime is expunged under state law, it still must be reported if the crime is within the time covered by the question.

Security violations, including misuse of information technology systems. This is a big deal. If you are careless with classified material, particularly if you willfully ignore the rules, a clearance will be hard to keep. The same is true for violating IT protocols.

Indebtedness. Serious indebtedness will cause questions about your reliability for a security clearance. Try to pay your bills and live within your means to have the best chance of not having a clearance checked. The background investigators do check your credit reports.


About Author

Debra Roth

Debra L. Roth is a partner at the law firm Shaw Bransford & Roth, a federal employment law firm in Washington, D.C. She is general counsel to the Senior Executives Association and the Federal Managers Association, host of the “FEDtalk” program on Federal News Radio, and a regular contributor to Federal News Radio’s “Federal Drive” morning show. Email your legal questions to

1 Comment

  1. There are really three components to a ‘security clearance.’
    [source: Defense Security Service facility security officer training materials]

    The first, and what you are really referring to, is personal ELIGIBILITY at a specific level of classified information, and this is determined by assessing security risks in 13 areas, including the 7 you have listed. An individual’s behaviors and habits go a long way to determine the eligibility, and this component stays with you even if you leave the employment of a company that holds your security information. For completeness, your reference [] lists the 13 adjudicative areas as:

    Allegiance to the United States
    Foreign influence
    Foreign preference
    Sexual behavior
    Emotional, Mental, and Personality Disorders
    Personal conduct
    Financial considerations
    Alcohol consumption
    Drug involvement
    Criminal conduct
    Security violations
    Outside activities
    Misuse of information technology systems

    The second component, ACCESS, is the Government’s determination of an eligible person’s need to access specific levels of classified information, based on job factors, contracts, eligibility, and need-to-know.

    The final component, and one that is highly subjective, is SUITABILITY, and this can apply even more stringent requirements on someone who is eligible, meets the access needs, but may have some undesirable characteristic, such as dual citizenship, or naturalization, or foreign contacts, etc, that could affect the physical access to classified information.

    Presidential Executive Order 13467, “Reforming Processes Related to Suitability for Government Employment, Fitness for Contractor Employees, and Eligibility for Access to Classified National Security Information,” was signed by President George W Bush on June 30, 2008. It outlines the methodology for the continuous evaluation of the suitability component in the following way:
    ‘‘Continuous evaluation’’ means reviewing the background of an individual who has been determined to be eligible for access to classified information (including additional or new checks of commercial databases, Government databases, and other information lawfully available to security officials)
    at any time during the period of eligibility to determine whether that individual continues to meet the requirements for eligibility for access to classified information.”

    An individual who has been granted access could run afoul of the law, become heavily indebted, or experience other life events that would show up in various databases and be evaluated against the criteria. If the individual chooses not to report these changes, that would look bad in the eyes of the evaluators, and reflect poorly on judgment and integrity.

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