What Is Top-Secret Clearance?

Top-secret clearance, also known as TS/SCI, allows employees to work on projects that require classified information. It opens doors in government agencies, defense contractors, and cybersecurity companies where it’s a requirement for positions related to intelligence gathering, national security, and defensive cyber operations.

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To qualify for a clearance, applicants undergo a rigorous investigation that includes background checks, physical examinations, psychological exams and interviews. The process is designed to detect possible security concerns, including support for sedition or foreign influence.

Background Investigations

Applicants for top-secret clearance undergo a thorough investigation by investigators at the Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency. The process includes a review of financial considerations, patterns of residence and other aspects of your personal life, such as your relationships, as well as a search for possible criminal activity. Investigators examine these factors to assess your judgment, trustworthiness and patriotism, and they are concerned about things like support for sedition, foreign influence or preference, a pattern of drug or alcohol abuse or mental disorders that could impact your ability to safeguard information.

The standard background investigation for a national security position involves completing a lengthy questionnaire called Standard Form 86 and extensive checks of every place you have lived, worked or studied and your relationships there. Investigators also check public records for things such as liens, bankruptcies and divorces. They interview people who know you, including coworkers and neighbors, as well as your spouse or partners and children.

Those seeking top-secret clearance must complete a special investigation known as an SSBI. This is an expanded-scope investigation that covers a 10-year period, and it requires interviews of more people. It also requires a polygraph examination. When an SSBI meets the necessary standards, it is considered to meet the requirements for access to Sensitive Compartmented Information, or SCI. Applicants must pass a reinvestigation every five years to maintain the top-secret status of their clearance.

Physical Examinations

The process of granting security clearances requires a thorough evaluation of a person’s character, conduct and personal associations. This is known as the “whole-person” concept. Essentially, the adjudicator must be satisfied that a person is trustworthy and can be trusted with classified information. This is a very high standard, and one that is difficult to meet.

Most federal government and cleared contractor personnel have their security clearances granted by trained personnel security specialists (adjudicators) at their agencies. Clearance adjudicators evaluate the results of Tier 3 and Tier 5 Personnel Security Investigations in accordance with National Security Adjudicative Guidelines, contained in Security Executive Agent Directive 4 (SEAD 4). Defense Department civilians, military personnel and contractors, who account for 88 percent of all clearances, have their clearances granted by staff adjudicators at the DCSA Consolidated Adjudications Services (CAS) office at Fort Meade, Maryland.

A clearance denial or revocation can be challenged by a written SOR, which contains the allegations that led to the unfavorable decision and gives the person the opportunity to offer evidence in response. The applicant can also request a review of the unfavorable decision or present his/her case in a face-to-face hearing before an DOHA Administrative Judge (AJ).

Psychological Examinations

As part of the national security eligibility process, psychological exams are conducted by a psychologist. The psychological examinations are designed to identify any red flags in your background, including drug usage, criminal behavior, unauthorized contacts with foreign governments or organizations and other concerns that could jeopardize your access to confidential national security information. A polygraph exam is also part of the psychological evaluation. A polygraph measures various physiological responses while you answer questions and is a highly effective way to determine your honesty.

Psychologists conducting these examinations often dig deep into your past and ask very personal questions about your sexual habits, lifestyle, financial decisions and your social life. They look for any signs of mental instability, like a history of erratic and impulsive behavior that could lead to self-injury or destructive behaviors toward others. They also look for any mental health issues, such as bipolar disorder or borderline personality disorder, that may raise a concern.

ClearancePsych’s psychologists know what it takes to navigate the complex and sometimes intimidating psychological evaluations. They have years of experience assisting personnel security professionals and guiding clients through clearance denials, appeals and other types of psychological assessments. They understand how to evaluate individuals under pressure in a high-stress environment.

Interviews

Top Secret clearance opens doors to positions in government agencies, defense contractors, intelligence organizations, and cybersecurity firms. Clearance holders work on cutting-edge projects that contribute to national security efforts and have access to specialized training and certifications to further advance their careers. However, obtaining this type of clearance requires that individuals pass through a rigorous background investigation process. Thorough investigations check for a variety of factors that could disqualify someone from getting a clearance, including financial issues, criminal activity, and mental health issues.

One of the most important steps in obtaining Top Secret clearance is the interview stage, also called the Personal Subject Interview (PSI). This is where the investigator follows up on any questions that may have come up during the investigation. It is essential that you be prepared for the interview and be ready to respond to any areas of concern raised. If you do not respond, your clearance will be delayed at best and potentially denied in the worst case scenario.

The investigator will ask questions about a variety of topics, from your childhood to your current employment. In addition, the investigator will follow up on information that was verified through automated systems. They will also ask you for the phone numbers of people who they can contact to ask additional questions. The goal is to determine if your behavior is consistent with being eligible for access to classified information, such as Sensitive Compartment Information (SCI) or Restricted Data (RD). If the adjudicator has any doubts, they will send the investigation service provider to conduct additional interviews.