Guide to How to Get a Security Clearance for Cybersecurity

If you are interested in cybersecurity and hope to work for a government agency, chances are, you will need some type of security clearance. A security clearance is an official United States governmental determination that you are allowed to access some type of classified U.S. government information. Here, we will discuss what a security clearance is needed for, how to obtain one, and what to do if you are denied a security clearance for any reason.

What Is a Security Clearance?

Broadly defined, a security clearance is a determination from the U.S. government that you are eligible to access some level of classified information. There are two main types of security clearances: Personnel Security Clearances (PCLs) and Facility Security Clearances (FCLs). More than 80 percent of all security clearances are issued by the Department of Defense. Other governmental agencies that issue security clearances include the Department of Justice, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Energy, and the Central Intelligence Agency.

Only naturalized U.S. citizens are eligible to receive security clearance. Foreign nationals may not receive security clearance. A non-U.S. citizen may be given a Limited Access Authorization (LAA) in lieu of a security clearance.

History of Security Clearances

When were security clearances instituted in the U.S.? To understand this, you must go all the way back to 1883 and the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act. This federal law was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Chester A. Arthur, and mandated that positions within the federal government must be awarded on the basis of merit rather than on political patronage. This meant that applicants for federal government positions must have character, trustworthiness, reputation, and fitness in order to be employed.

Executive Order 8781 in 1941 took this one step further, requiring that civilian federal employees undergo a background check and fingerprinting through the FBI. Executive Order 9835, in 1948, implemented similar procedures for military personnel. Then in 1953, Executive Order 10450 required investigations of all federal employees to make sure that their loyalty, conduct, character, trustworthiness and reliability was consistent with the interests of national security.

Executive Order 13526 and Security Executive Agent Directive 4 currently govern security clearances and national security information that can be granted to federal employees and those working with government and the military, as well as under what conditions that information is bestowed.

Levels of Security Clearances

In addition to the types of security clearances, there are levels of security clearances. All of the security clearances listed below require a background check, with Top Secret also requiring a field check, a Single Scope Background Investigation and perhaps a polygraph test, as well as interviews with your employers, co-workers, neighbors and references:

  • Confidential– This level of security clearance provides a person with access to information that could damage national security if revealed without authorization. It must be renewed every 15 years.
  • Secret- This level of security clearance provides a person with access to information that can cause serious damage to national security if revealed without authorization. It must be renewed every 10 years.
  • Top Secret- This level of security clearance provides a person with access to information that can cause very grave damage to national security if revealed without authorization. It must be renewed every 5 years.

There is also something called a “collateral clearance” which is a security clearance that is issued without any special access authorizations.

Other special levels of security clearance fall under Top Secret clearance and are designed for vulnerable classified information requiring special eligibility procedures:

  • Sensitive Compartmentalized Information (SCI)- this level includes intelligence methods, sources and processes. Access to information is provided only in compartments, separated from each other, each with its own requirements and authorizations. SCIs provide interim, limited access to specific information only.
  • Special Access Programs (SAPs)- this level includes highly sensitive programs and projects, when information is exceptional and normal rules for eligibility to it are not sufficient to protect it. SAPs provide interim, limited access to specific information only.

Cybersecurity Jobs Requiring a Security Clearance

Cybersecurity jobs that require a security clearance usually involve those employed by a government agency, government contractor, or an organization that works with government contractors. Any cyber job that works with sensitive information in areas of the government or military will usually require a security clearance. In particular, if you work for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), National Security Agency (NSA), Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), National Geospatial- Intelligence Agency (NGA), National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), or Department of Homeland Security (DHS), you will likely need a security clearance.

Examples of recently advertised cybersecurity jobs that require a security clearance are:

  • Cybersecurity Analyst III with Security Clearance – PCI, Aberdeen Proving Ground, MD
  • Information Security Manager – ASRC Federal, Fort Meade, MD
  • Personnel Security Specialist, Top Secret Clearance– GEM Technology, Washington, DC
  • Cloud Security Consultant – Amazon Web Services, Inc., Herndon, VA
  • Classified Cyber Security Analyst – Data Bridge Consultants, Charlotte, NC

How to Obtain a Security Clearance

The process of obtaining a security clearance takes some time. You cannot initiate the process—if you are hired for a job that requires a security clearance, the contractor or government agency for which you work will sponsor you for a security clearance. The decision to grant a security clearance is decided by an adjudicator who is employed or contracted by a Department of Defense Central Adjudication Facility. This person reviews the results of a Personnel Security Investigation and compares it to established qualifying criteria for security clearances.

Background Investigation for Security Clearance

The first step in a background investigation for a security clearance is to file the Standard Form 86, otherwise known as the Questionnaire for National Security Positions. (You can also begin this process online at the e-QIP site). It asks over 100 questions about your life, including where you’ve lived, education, employment, any military service, marital status, relatives, friends and foreign contact. It also asks you about criminal records, actions in civil court, financial matters, drugs and mental health issues, and misuse of information technology systems. Examples of questions include:

  • While traveling to another country, were you contacted by, or in contact with, anyone exhibiting excessive knowledge of or undue interest in you or your job?
  • Has a court or administrative agency ever issued an order declaring you mentally incompetent?
  • Have you ever been hospitalized for a mental health condition?
  • In the last seven years, have you been issued a summons, citation, or ticket to appear in court in a criminal proceeding against you?
  • In the last seven years, have you illegally used any drugs or controlled substances?

When you are filling out the Standard Form 86, make sure to hold nothing back. Providing incomplete information or being dishonest could cause your application to be rejected. You should also request free credit reports before filing the form, as you might be unaware of credit issues listed there.

After you have submitted the Standard Form 86, the government will conduct a thorough background check. Your fingerprints will be taken, they will examine your criminal records over the past decade, you must provide proof of citizenship and date of birth, education degrees, employment records, financial status, public records, and they will talk to your references.

Reasons for Denial of a Security Clearance

If your security clearance is denied, the first culprit is usually incomplete or dishonest information on your Standard Form 86. There are other reasons that you could be denied a security clearance, including (but not limited to):

  • Addiction to or unlawful use of controlled substances
  • Criminal convictions
  • Dishonorable discharge/dismissal from the military
  • Mental incompetency
  • Serious financial problems
  • Unwillingness to surrender a foreign passport
  • Pattern of rule violations and/or criminal conduct
  • Repeated alcohol abuse
  • Intentional false statements
  • Sexual behavior
  • Personal conduct
  • Foreign preference/influence

If your security clearance is granted, based upon your level of clearance you will need to submit an updated security package every 5, 10 or 15 years and the government will conduct another background investigation. This will be done to renew your security clearance.

Once you leave a job requiring a security clearance, your clearance is terminated. It will either be listed as “expired” or “current” based upon whether you are still within its time period. This can be helpful if you are applying for another position within the same agency that requires a security clearance.