To obtain employment with many government agencies or departments, you must be able to obtain a security clearance that is prepared following a thorough investigation of your personal background. Depending on the degree of potential sensitivity of information to which you might be granted access, such an investigation can range from “routine” (a basic check of your criminal and credit history) to “comprehensive” (an in-depth investigation of every facet of your life up to the time that your prospective employer submitted its request for such an investigation).
Eligibility for a security clearance is set forth in a number of federal laws (50 U.S. Code § 3341 – “Security clearances”) and departmental policies. Other than the branches of the Department of Defense, government agencies that routinely require certain employees to obtain a security clearance include the Departments of:
Under current U. S. law and regulations, there are four absolute barriers that will prevent you from obtaining a security clearance issued by a department or agency of the federal government:
Being a non-citizen of the United States
By law, only citizens of the United States (by birth or by naturalization) are eligible for security clearances. This prohibition includes, of course, those who are in the country illegally as well as any residents who have been granted legal resident alien status (“Green Card” residents). However, dual-citizenship status is not an absolute barrier to obtaining a security clearance. In such cases the issuing of clearances is at the discretion of the department or agency that originally requested the investigation.
A criminal record
In general, any criminal conviction or guilty plea that could have resulted in confinement for more than one year can result in your ineligibility for a security clearance. Each department or agency may establish its own policies, to be applied on a case by case basis, regarding convictions that are “older” than a certain number of years or what it considers to be a “pattern” of criminal behavior.
A history of psychological or emotional disturbance
Most departments and agencies will reject an applicant who has a documented history of a psychological or emotional disorder that was diagnosed within a certain time frame. Again, each requesting department or agency has some leeway in what it considers to be a disqualifying condition.
A history of drug and/or substance abuse
A personal history of ongoing drug or substance abuse is sufficient grounds for your being denied a security clearance. In most cases, such a history can be ignored if the abuse occurred years ago or was not suggestive of addiction to a particular drug or substance. However, most agencies will consider any condition that required either hospitalization or intensive outpatient therapy to be sufficient grounds for your being denied access to sensitive information.
Many private employers, particularly those that are government contractors or subcontractors, have policies that require all new employees to submit themselves to a background check that is often practically identical to the investigation required of a government employee. In these cases, most employers also require that their employees also sign “non-disclosure” and/or “non-competition” agreements as a condition of their employment. Such agreements are governed by the laws of contracts rather than by criminal or espionage law, as would be the case if an employee deliberately revealed sensitive information to a foreign government.
According to the pertinent laws and regulations regarding security clearances, you usually have the right to an administrative (non-judicial) appeal regarding “adverse findings.” However, such appeals are only infrequently granted and then only in cases where the available facts are overwhelmingly in your favor. In most cases an appeal is successful only if the appeal is based on another aspect of employment law, such as existing non-discrimination or civil rights statutes.
In summary, security clearances are granted only following background investigations that are conducted to minimize the risk that an individual may be at risk of exposing information that could cause harm to the national interests of the United States or would compromise the competitive advantages of private employers. Since this article has presented only generalizations of current laws and procedures, it is always prudent to consult with the personnel and recruitment offices of your prospective employer if you have specific questions regarding such matters that should be addressed.