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Security Clearance Secrets

Part 1, The Basics

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Almost everyday, someone sends me an e-mail, or posts a question on our message board concerning security clearances in the military. What is a security clearance? What do they look at? What can keep me from getting a security clearance? How far back to they investigate? How long is a security clearance valid?

What is a Security Clearance?

The military possesses information and technology which could be helpful to our enemies. The unauthorized release of this information can compromise our nation's national security. Unauthorized release can cause battles/wars to be lost, missions to be ineffective, and can result in the death or injury of military and civilian personnel.

A security clearance investigation is an inquiry into an individual’s loyalty, character, trustworthiness and reliability to ensure that he or she is eligible for access to national security information. The investigation focuses on an individual’s character and conduct, emphasizing such factors as honesty, trustworthiness, reliability, financial responsibility, criminal activity, emotional stability, and other similar and pertinent areas. All investigations consist of checks of national records and credit checks; some investigations also include interviews with individuals who know the candidate for the clearance as well as the candidate himself/herself.

In the military, all classified information is divided into one of three categories:

CONFIDENTIAL: Applied to information or material the unauthorized disclosure of which could be reasonably expected to cause damage to the national security.

SECRET: Applied to information or material the unauthorized disclosure of which reasonably could be expected to cause serious damage to the national security.

TOP SECRET: Applied to information or material the unauthorized disclosure of which reasonably could be expected to cause exceptionally grave damage to the national security.

In addition to the above, some classified information is so sensitive that even the extra protection measures applied to Top Secret information are not sufficient. This information is known as "Sensitive Compartmented Information" (SCI) or Special Access Programs (SAP), and one needs special "SCI Access" or SAP approval to be given access to this information.

"For Official Use Only" is not a security classification. It is used to protect information covered under the Privacy Act, and other sensitive data.

Who requires a Security Clearance?

Basically, anyone who requires access to classified information to perform their duties. If your job requires you to have access to CONFIDENTIAL information, you would require a CONFIDENTIAL Security Clearance. If your job requires you to have access to SECRET information, you would require to have a SECRET Security Clearance, etc. For military personnel, two things determine the level of security clearance required; your MOS/AFSC/Rating (Job), and your assignment.

Many military jobs require access to classified information, regardless of where one is assigned. In other cases, the job itself may not require a Security Clearance, but the particular location or unit that the person is assigned to would require giving access to classified information and material.

For example, when I first enlisted into the Air Force into the Aircrew Life Support AFSC, the job required a SECRET clearance level. A few years later, however, I was considered for an assignment to a unit which required me to have a TOP SECRET clearance with SCI. Even before I knew I was being considered for the assignment, the Air Force initiated a TOP SECRET/SCI background check.

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