Security Clearance FAQ

The frequently-asked questions (FAQs) and answers below are courtesy of the U.S. Defense Security Service.

What is the Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency (DCSA)?

The Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency (DCSA) is a unit within the Department of Defense (DoD) tasked with a crucial role in safeguarding our Nation’s security. DCSA makes its contribution to the National Security Community by conducting personnel security investigations and providing industrial security products and services, as well as offering comprehensive security education and training to DoD and other government entities in the areas of Personnel Security Clearances, Facility Security Clearances, safeguarding, computer security and Foreign Ownership Control and Influence.

What is the Office of Personnel Management (OPM)?

One of the Office of Personnel Management’s (OPM) principal missions is to conduct Personnel Security Investigations (PSI) on:
• DoD military or civilian personnel who require a security clearance to access classified or sensitive information.
• Employees of facilities in private industry that are cleared under the DoD portion of the National Industrial Security Program (NISP).
• To assist in the vetting of personnel clearance to our allies.

What is a Personnel Security Investigation (PSI)?

A PSI is an inquiry into an individual’s loyalty, character, trustworthiness and reliability to ensure that he or she is eligible to access classified information or for an appointment to a sensitive position or position of trust.

Why are PSIs and Security Clearances Necessary?

PSIs and security clearances are key elements in protecting the security of the United States. PSIs and security clearances are required to counter the threats that may stem from:

Whether a specific incident would be reported promptly to clearance adjudicative personnel, and whether it would then result in an investigation, and possibly a clearance revocation, would depend on a number of factors.

These would include: who is aware of the incident, the seriousness of the incident, whether previous incidents were a matter of concern in the past, and whether the incident relates to areas considered to be of concern for persons holding a security clearance. Incidents that are not immediately investigated may also be noted and explored later when that individual undergoes a routinely scheduled Periodic Reinvestigation. Information relating to the following issues may be considered significant in relation to holding a clearance:

Foreign intelligence services;

Organizations or people who wish to overthrow or undermine the United States government through unconstitutional means, violent acts, or other terrorist group activities;

Individuals who:

May be susceptible to pressure or improper influence.

Have been dishonest or demonstrated a lack of integrity that has caused others to doubt their reliability.

Who Decides Whether a Security Clearance or Access to a Sensitive Position Is Granted?

An adjudicator, who is employed by one of the DoD Central Adjudication Facilities (CAFs) or DISCO (Defense Industrial Security Clearance Office) reviews the results of a PSI and compares it to established qualifying criteria for granting access to classified information or for an appointment to a sensitive position or position of trust.

Who is subjected to a PSI?

You should only be subject to a PSI if you will have access to classified information or be assigned to a sensitive position or a position of trust. If you believe that your job does not or will not involve this level of access, you should discuss the situation with your security officer or the investigator during your subject interview.

What if Another Federal Agency Has Already Conducted a Background Investigation on Me?

Other federal investigative agencies also conduct background investigations on federal government and government contractor employees. The DoD will usually accept such an investigation (known as resiprocity) as the basis for a security clearance depending on when it was conducted and what events may have occurred since the time of the prior investigation.

At My Request, Will DSS Conduct a PSI on Me?

No, DSS can only accept investigative requests from military or civilian organizations under DoD or from contractor facilities that are cleared under the defense portion of the NISP and have a valid contractual vehicle allowing the assignment of cleared personnel.

How Does the PSI Process Get Started?

If you are a candidate for a security clearance, or a sensitive position or position of trust, you will be asked to complete an Electronic Questionnaire for Investigation Processing (eQIP, also known as an SF-86) to provide personal details on your background. Once you complete the document, you should forward it to your security officer who will in turn review it for potential areas to improve the data and make sure your clearance has the best chance of success.

Through the eQIP system, you will then process the clearance. Only a security officer, or another designated official in your organization, has the authority to request an investigation for you. Your investigation will be opened once OPM receives your eQIP and validates that it is completely and correctly filled out.

Who Should I Name as References and What Will They be Asked?

Your references should be people who have known you for a significant period of your life. These references will be asked questions about your honesty, reliability, and trustworthiness, and their opinion on whether you should be given access to classified information or assigned to a sensitive position or position of trust.

Your references will also be asked questions about your past and present activities, employment history, education, family background, neighborhood activities, and finances. During your PSI, the investigator(s) will need to know if you have had any involvement with drugs, encounters with the police, allegiance to the US or problem drinking habits, and other facts about your personal history. The investigator(s) will attempt to obtain both favorable and unfavorable information about your background so an adjudicator can make an appropriate determination.

Personnel Security FAQ

How are Security Clearances Granted?

Once it is determined that a military member or contractor requires a Security Clearance because of an assignment or job availability, the individual is instructed to complete a Security Clearance Background Investigation Questionnaire. As of May 2001, DOD requires that this form be completed by use of an internet based application known as eQIP, instead of the old hard-copy SF-86 form.

However, it’s not necessary to have the eQIP program to see what questions are asked in the questionnaire. They are exactly the same as on the paper SF-86.

When completing the questionnaire for CONFIDENTIAL, and SECRET Clearances, it’s necessary to provide information for the previous seven years of employment, living locations etc. For TOP SECRET Clearances, one must provide information for the previous ten years of employment, living locations etc. It’s important to note here that giving false information on a Security Document constitutes a violation of Title 18, United States Code, Section 101. Fraudulent entries may lead to fines and imprisoned for a period of five years. If you are in the Military, under the UCMJ, the maximum punishment includes reduction to the lowest enlisted grade, forfeiture of all pay and allowances, confinement for a period of five years, and a dishonorable discharge.

You should be aware that answering all of the questions on the SF86 accurately is very important, it is taken as evidence of your reliability and honesty.

Indeed, if your clearance would not otherwise be denied, it could still be denied if it is discovered that you attempted to conceal information about yourself. It is also possible that even if your clearance were granted, it could later be revoked if dishonesty on the forms is later discovered.

If you realize after you have handed in the form that you have inadvertently made a mistake or omitted something important, please tell your Security Officer, Recruiter, MEPS Security Interviewer, or the OPM Investigator when you are interviewed. If you do not do so, the error or omission could be held against you during the adjudicative process.

Once you complete the eQIP, the document is sent to the Defense Security Service (DSS) or Office of Personnel Management (OPM). DSS/OPM are responsible to verify the information and perform the actual background investigation. The level of investigation depends upon the level of access to be granted.


A National Agency Check (NAC)-A computerized search of investigative files and other records held by federal agencies such as the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) and Office of Personnel Management (OPM).

A Local Agency Check (LAC)-A review of appropriate criminal history records held by local law enforcement agencies, such as police departments or sheriffs, with jurisdiction over the areas where you have resided, gone to school, or worked.

Financial checks – A review of your Credit Record.

For Top Secret Clearances, a Single Scope Background Investigation (SSBI) is performed which includes all of the above, plus:

Field interviews of references to include coworkers, employers, personal friends, educators, neighbors, and other appropriate individuals.

Checks of records held by employers, courts, and rental offices.

A subject interview – An interview with you by an investigator.

These inquiries are performed by one or more investigators who work in the geographic area where the information is to be obtained. NACs, however, may be performed electronically from a central location. OPM uses two types of investigators to conduct these investigations; OPM Agents and Contractors.

What Determines Approval or Disapproval?

It’s important to note that DSS/OPM does not make any security clearance determinations or recommendations. OPM simply gathers information. Once the information has been verified, and the investigations completed, OPM presents the information to the specific service’s adjudicator authority (each military service has their own, DISCO acts for DSS), who determine whether or not to grant the security clearance, using standards set by that particular military service.

It’s impossible to say if any particular thing will result in denial of a security clearance. The adjudicators use the Adjudicator Guidelines to determine whether or not the individual can be trusted with our nation’s secrets.

Primarily, adjudicators look for honesty, trustworthiness, character, loyalty, financial responsibility, and reliability. On cases that contain significant derogatory information warranting additional action, the adjudicator may draft a request for additional investigation/information, or request psychiatric or alcohol and drug evaluation. Even so, adjudicators are not the final authority. All denials of clearances must be personally reviewed by a branch chief, or higher.

The adjudicator considers the following factors when evaluating an individual’s conduct:

  • The nature, extent and seriousness of the conduct The circumstances surrounding the conduct, to include knowledgeable participation
  • The frequency and recency of the conduct
  • The individual’s age and maturity at the time of the conduct
  • The voluntariness of participation
  • The presence or absence of rehabilitation and other pertinent behavioral changes
  • The motivation for the conduct
  • The potential for pressure, coercion, exploitation, or duress
  • The likelihood of continuation of the conduct
  • Naturally, each case is judged on its own merits and final determination remains the responsibility of the specific department or agency. Any doubt as to whether access to classified information is clearly consistent with national security will be resolved in favor of the national security.

    Because of a recent change in the law, there are some factors which will positively result in the denial of a clearance. As a result of the Smith Amendment, the FY01 Defense Authorization Act amended Chapter 49 of Title 10, United States Code, and precluded the initial granting or renewal of a security clearance by (DoD) under the following four specific circumstances:

  • An individual has been convicted in any court of the U.S. of a crime and sentenced to imprisonment for a term exceeding one year.
  • An individual is (currently) an unlawful user of, or is addicted to, a controlled substance (as defined in section 102 or the Controlled Substances Act (21U.S.C. 802))
  • An individual is mentally incompetent, as determined by a mental health professional approved by the DoD
  • An individual has been discharged or dismissed from the armed forces under dishonorable conditions.
  • The statute also provides that the Secretary of Defense and the secretary of the military department concerned may authorize an exception to the provisions concerning convictions, dismissals and discharges from the armed force in meritorious cases.

    After I’m Granted a Clearance, Can it Later Be Revoked?

    Certainly. There is a continuing evaluation requirement for all personnel holding security clearances. DoD regulations require the military services and DoD agencies to establish security programs so that supervisory personnel know their responsibilities in matters pertaining to the cleared individuals under their supervision. Such programs provide practical guidance as to indicators that may signal matters of possible concern which would call into question whether it is in the best interests of the country for an individual to continue to hold a security clearance. Each service and agency provides supervisors with specific instructions regarding reporting procedures (for adverse information). Facility Security Officers (FSOs) are also obligated under the NISPOM to report adverse information on cleared employees. If considered necessary, on review of the reported information, the appropriate authority can request an investigation to determine whether that individual’s clearance should be removed. In cases of grave concern, a clearance can even be suspended pending the results of the investigation.

    Whether a specific incident would be reported promptly to clearance adjudicative personnel, and whether it would then result in an investigation, and possibly a clearance revocation, would depend on a number of factors. These would include: who is aware of the incident, the seriousness of the incident, whether previous incidents were a matter of concern in the past, and whether the incident relates to areas considered to be of concern for persons holding a security clearance. Incidents that are not immediately investigated may also be noted and explored later when that individual undergoes a routinely scheduled Periodic Reinvestigation. Information relating to the following issues may be considered significant in relation to holding a clearance:

  • Allegiance to the U.S.
  • Foreign Influence
  • Foreign preference
  • Sexual Behavior
  • Personal Conduct
  • Financial Considerations
  • Alcohol Consumption
  • Drug Involvement
  • Emotional, Mental and Personality Disorders
  • Criminal Conduct
  • Security Violations
  • Outside Activities Misuse of Information Technology Systems
  • What Investigative Information may be Available to me?

    If OPM has conducted an investigation on you, there is generally some type of information available to you. However, if you have been awarded a CONFIDENTIAL or SECRET clearance there is the possibility that the available information may be very limited.

    The investigation requirement for a clearance at the CONFIDENTIAL or SECRET level is rather fundamental. This type of investigation is known as a National Agency Check (NAC) and begins with queries to appropriate U.S. Government agencies. If no questionable or derogatory information is uncovered the investigation is concluded.

    However, DSS/OPM performs so many investigations in a year that they cannot possibly store them all, even on microfilm. Therefore, in those instances where the results are entirely favorable, DSS/OPM does not keep a physical copy of the investigation. The only information that is available is a single line in the Defense Clearance and Investigations Index (DCII) computer system reflecting the date the NAC was completed, and the identity of those US Government agencies that were checked regarding you.

    If, however, information of a questionable or derogatory nature is admitted or uncovered, then the investigation will be retained in a physical format, most likely on computer.

    If you hold a TOP SECRET clearance the investigative requirements are much more complex. Although a NAC is still part of the investigation, OPM will from the beginning, send its Special Agents out to conduct a field investigation called a Single Scope Background Investigation (SSBI). These types of investigations are always retained in a physical format.

    If you have maintained a clearance for a period of time, OPM/DISCO may also have on file “update-type” investigations, called Periodic Reinvestigations (PR). These may either be in computer or physical format as appropriate to your clearance level and investigative results. Data is also stored in JPAS.

    Finally, if OPM/DISCO is requested to investigate questionable or derogatory allegations or information after you have been granted a clearance, but before you are due a PR, they will conduct a Special Investigative Inquiry (SII). This type of investigation is retained in a physical format.

    What Other Information is Available About Me From DSS?

    In the majority of cases, people are primarily interested in the information about themselves found in the OPM investigative file. However, certain other types of information may be available, although whether any of this additional information exists is unique to each case. An example of other types of information may include, but is not limited to:

    Disclosure Information: That is, records of whether your investigative file or information about your file has ever been released to another agency;

    Industrial Clearance Information: If you have a security clearance because you work for a company that has placed you on a DOD contract requiring a clearance, then the record of that clearance is the property of and may be released to you by DSS.

    General Information: In many instances, DSS/OPM may be able to answer general questions concerning investigations and clearances. If they can’t, they may be able to direct you to a person, office or agency that can.

    Is There any DSS/OPM/DISCO Information I May Not Have?

    Both the Privacy Act and the Freedom of Information Act permit DSS/OPM/DISCO to exclude information release. Since each investigation is unique, there are an unlimited number of possibilities as to what may be withheld from an individual investigation, however, most of the information falls into one of these three general areas: Information that pertains to another person and release of which would, in OPM’s opinion, constitute a violation of their privacy, will be withheld. Information which is currently and properly classified will be withheld. Information that may tend to identify a source to whom DSS/OPM/DISCO has granted an express promise of confidentiality will be withheld. If OPM/DICSO receives your request for your investigation and OPM has a current case open on you, they will not release any information from that current case so long as it is open. DSS/OPM routinely checks for completion of the case and will forward the releasable portions to you as soon as they are able.

    If there are prior closed OPM investigations DISCO will, at your request, consider them for release to you while awaiting the current case to be completed and closed.

    In certain instances, OPM/DICSO encounters medical information that they do not have the expertise to evaluate for release. In those situations, OPM will withhold the information and request you to provide them with the name and address of a physician to whom you wish the records sent, so they may be fully and correctly explained to you.

    How may I Appeal if I am Denied Information Under the Privacy Act?

    If the Privacy Act Branch denies you access to any information pertaining to you, you may appeal to their supervisor’s office at DSS Headquarters or directly to the government agency to which your case has been referred if moved from DSS.

    What if my Investigation was Done a Long Time Ago?

    DSS became operational on October 1, 1972. Prior to the formation of DSS, the Personnel Security Investigation mission was accomplished by the military services. When DSS inherited the PSI responsibilities, prior investigations became their property. However, due to lack of storage space, old files remained in the military services file repositories until requested on an individual basis by DSS. As a result, most of these investigations were destroyed at the end of their routine retention period.

    In addition, the large majority of DSS investigative files for field investigations are retained only for 15 years after the closing date of the last investigative effort. Therefore most DSS investigations with a last investigative effort closing date of 15 years or more have been deleted from their files. So having to process a new investigation is a requirement if it has been in excess of 24 months since you have been actively indoctrinated onto a classified contract. Some exceptions apply, but be prepared to fill out a new SF 86 Form for processing.