What are security clearance levels? They can be a requirement for military members, federal employees, contractors, and others who must access sensitive materials, classified information, etc.
Security clearances are the federal government’s way of vetting its employees. Is an individual trustworthy enough to permit access to controlled information?
Clearances are not granted to all applicants. Each person must be investigated and approved for the right clearance. Security clearances are granted only for the level needed to perform specific duties–they are not intended to allow all access to all information at the appropriate level.
Getting Started: Interim Security Clearances
In some workplaces, a military member or civilian may need access to classified materials or work centers sooner than the clearance process can permit. In such cases an interim clearance may be possible, or even required.
Interim clearances are exactly what the name implies: temporary approval to access the information or facilities permitted by the proposed clearance level the employee or military member is being investigated for.
They are often granted conditionally upon the receipt of the applicant’s completed security clearance questionnaire. While there may be a demand for interim clearances, they are not meant to be issued as part of “business as usual”. They are generally approved as exceptions only, depending on circumstances and mission requirements.
Can I Request A Security Clearance?
No applicant may initiate the clearance process. It must be initiated by the agency requiring the clearances (see below).
Security Clearance Levels For Military Members
Military members are required to apply for security clearances for specific needs. The three security clearance levels military people may be approved to hold are, from lowest to highest:
- Top Secret
When applying for a Confidential, Secret, or Top Secret Clearance as a member of the uniformed services, fingerprints and other materials may (or may not) have already been gathered as part of the enlistment process. Military members may have an easier time with the mechanics of the investigation process than those who are applying for a federal job and who haven’t been fingerprinted, etc.
If you are an officer or an enlisted member with a Secret or Top Secret clearance, depending on your job you may also need access to material controlled by Special Access Programs, which are described as “enforced” need-to-know levels of clearance. We’ll explore these programs below.
Security Clearances For Non-Military Federal Employees
The Department of State official site lists three federal clearances from lowest to highest. They are, respectively, Confidential, Secret, and Top Secret.
Some who are approved for access to Secret or Top Secret material may also be required to apply for access to Special Access Programs or SAP. One or both of these allow those with access to work with, handle, and use restricted data (at the appropriate level of clearance) as well as for information with lower classifications. But as mentioned above, all access is predicated on an as-needed basis.
Special Access Programs
Special Access Programs (SAP) may be offered to some employees and troops. The command or agency determines the need, and initiates the process of vetting the applicant based on specific need in the workplace. SAP access is not granted simply because you carry the appropriate level of clearance. A nomination is required. In general, your most recent security clearance investigation must have taken place in the last five years.
In addition to that, the following also applies:
- Applicants must take a random polygraph examination
- Applicant is required to sign a DoD-approved SAP program indoctrination
- Applicants must sign a non-disclosure agreement
- Applicants must acknowledge that violations of the NDA may lead to termination of access, removal from a position of special confidence, and prosecution
SAP approval is dependent on a “favorable” clearance procedure. You must have submitted your most current SF 86 within the past 12 months. You may submit an updated version if the SF 86 is older than 12 months.
Once approved for SAP, you may be required to submit work for security review. You may be required to submit if any reports or other communication includes controlled SAP details, information, etc.
Things That Are Not Security Clearance Levels
Controlled Unclassified Information (CUI)
Controlled Unclassified Information (CUI) is not a clearance designation in the same way there are Secret or Top Secret materials. It represents a level of control including identifying information that may be illegal to freely distribute. This is controlled information that is restricted by or in cooperation with applicable law, regulations, and government-wide policies. However, CUI is not classified under Executive Order 13526 or the Atomic Energy Act.
Public Trust Position
Public Trust involves a type of background investigation but one that does not result in issuance of a security clearance. Certain employees may require access to sensitive information that is not necessarily classified. They must obtain a Public Trust Position designation through a background check.
Mechanics Of A Security Clearance Investigation
Investigations can take approximately 120 days or longer depending on the nature of the investigation. Some of this processing time depends greatly on how accurate and complete the information provided by the applicant may be.
Those who have done extensive overseas travel may find their process takes longer due to the need to verify such activities.
All clearance applications require filling out a form with extensive detail including your past addresses for ten years, descriptions of all foreign travel, disclosing associations with foreign companies, etc. This paperwork can, in some cases, wind up being more than 100 pages of information.
The questionnaire is basically a prelude to a background investigation which may include a personal interview. The background check will use your answers to inform the background investigation.
But the applicant-supplied data is not the only information that will be reviewed. With that in mind, applicants should know there may be serious penalties for falsifying or knowingly omitting details required on the forms. Investigators will review any criminal records, credit reports, employment histories, and college transcripts. They will also contact law enforcement agencies to review any applicable information on their records.