Don't Worry About the Government
January 28, 2009 7:53 PM   Subscribe

Government security clearance help: how long does it take? What will (and won't) they find?

I've been tentatively offered a gov't position, pending a security clearance. It's the lowest level, concerning everything going back five years. I haven't done any drugs and I have no criminal background....but I did recently (accidentally!) default on a loan and there is a credit check involved.

Also, and this is kind of a big one....I never finished college. I left with one class to go because I couldn't afford it. I've been very careful to avoid mentioning a degree in interviews and it hasn't been a problem yet (I am going to get that one class, but I need a job to pay for it...), but they are clearly going to find out if I lie about it on these forms. I'd rather not lie. How should I address this?

And if they, by the grace of god, do decide to take me on, how long will it take to process the paperwork? When will I know?

Anonymous because I'd rather not have anyone (besides the govt) know that I'm basically a dropout. Further questions?

Thank you!
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (16 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
You're not a dropout, you are saving money so you can pay for and complete your degree. One class left! Do not lie about the degree. They will find out. The lie would be worse than not having a degree in my opinion. The defaulted loan can be explained. Do not worry.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 7:57 PM on January 28, 2009

If you're going for SECRET, you'll fill out a form called an SF-86 listing all the places you've lived, and some other stuff.

Depending on whether you have any risk factors, they may or may not even call any of the references you put down. My understanding is that they pull your credit report and look at the address history it shows, and basically match it against what you put down. If things look good, and you don't have a lot of debt on the report, that's really all they care about.

Educational history doesn't really factor into it. They are really looking for whether you're a security risk, or have been off playing in an Al Qaeda training camp, not whether you graduated.

However ... if you have any risk factors (which can include foreign parents or relatives living outside the U.S., as well as extensive or suspicious international travel, or anything else they find shifty) your references may get called and asked a lot of questions about you. The questions basically mirror what you were asked to put down on the SF-86. So pick people who know or knew you fairly well during the 5-year period in question, not people you just met this year.

I don't know what the current backlog for investigations is. It varies by clearance level, and there is a certain amount of prioritization involved based on the agency and project requesting the investigation. I think it's around 6-9 months for a new SECRET, or was a while ago, but don't take that to the bank.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:08 PM on January 28, 2009

You will absolutely be found out if you lie about your degree. Lying on your SF85/86 form will absolutely risk getting a clearance. Why lie? It won't gain you anything. The majority of the clearance investigation process is not what nasty things haunt you, it's what nasty things you lie about and what nasty things can be used to blackmail you. If you're upfront about your problems, they're much more likely to be viewed as forgivable. No one is perfect - trust me, for however bad you think your past is, your investigator will have seen worse. It seems to me that if you lie, your employers will find out since the clearance investigator will have to investigate why you lied. If you don't lie, your employer probably will never find out anything about what you put on the form - it's covered by the Privacy Act. Unless your security officer is particularly gossipy or vengeful, they have no real incentive to tell anyone what you put on the SF85/86 form and all sorts of legal disincentives.

As for time to get a clearance, that heavily depends on how quickly your employer pushes it through, if they do at all. You can get an interim clearance in some cases; those can happen in less than a week. Full clearance can take anywhere from a couple months (best case) to 4/5 months (average case) to over a year (worst case). In case you're still thinking of lying, you'll increase the time to receive the clearance if you lie.
posted by saeculorum at 8:10 PM on January 28, 2009

For the love of God, don't lie. Search ask.mefi (google query: "") for other fun SF-86 and security clearance questions.
posted by kdar at 8:14 PM on January 28, 2009

In my case I filled out the paperwork etc when I started the job but it took them an entire year to get around to checking it, calling my references etc. Apparently they have been very backed up since, oh, 2002. Not too secure but whatever, it had no bearing on my job and did not delay my start date.
posted by fshgrl at 8:25 PM on January 28, 2009

Security agencies want to know two things: Are you trustworthy? Is there anything in your background that someone can use as leverage to make you divulge secrets? Lying, or even dissembling, about your degree status to those agencies answers both of those questions for them, and does so the wrong way. And never lie about your economic situation, because that's how 90-plus percent of spies get lured in. Tell them "I defaulted on this loan, and here are the circumstances, and I totally won't ever do that again."

They shouldn't have to delay you starting the job, if you can get that interim clearance, which basically just means a cursory glance at your clearance application didn't show any big obvious issues.
posted by Etrigan at 8:27 PM on January 28, 2009 [2 favorites]

My sister-in-law DID have risk factors, and it took her many months to get her clearance. In the meantime, she was working for the same agency, but was just handling non-sensitive work.
posted by Chrysostom at 9:12 PM on January 28, 2009

Do not lie. About anything. They can and will find out. Believe it or not, the financial thing is going to be a bigger deal than the degree, but so long as you haven't declared bankruptcy, you should be okay. Bankruptcy = no security clearance.
posted by squorch at 9:58 PM on January 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

For reference on how long it takes, I got an interim secret clearance in about 8 months and a standard secret clearance about 6 months after that.
posted by squorch at 9:59 PM on January 28, 2009

Be upfront with them, but frame the college situation around your lack of cash. "I'm really looking forward to finishing my degree, I had to drop out of my program with only one class left because I ran into some financial troubles." We're in a recession, there are a lot of people out there with money troubles. I wouldn't bring up defaulting on your loan, but be prepared to discuss it if it comes up. "I got behind of the payments, my ___ was sick and I had to help out with the medical bills (or whatever). It's sorted out now, and I am back on track paying it every month." I honestly doubt any of this will come up, but don't lie about it if it does.
posted by sophist at 10:09 PM on January 28, 2009

Aside: They have just changed the SF-86, like in the last week. Be sure you're filling out the most up-to-date version.

Interim should happen within weeks; full clearance can take up to a year. I actually did it backwards; although I thought followed the ambiguous directions on how to report marriage counseling, apparently I made somebody in the office unhappy about it and they didn't give me in an interim--but that meant the investigator was out to interview me within a couple of months. The investigator never did understand why I was dinged at all--it looked fine to him.

There should be a security contact at your employer--talk to them if you have questions. They won't care about your college status either; part of their job is to make sure this process goes smoothly for new hires.
posted by stevis23 at 4:39 AM on January 29, 2009

I had my interim secret in hand the day I started work. I filled out the paperwork about three weeks before the job began. The clearance came in three months, which I think is absurdly fast. I was told anywhere between nine and fifteen months.

I looked around when I was going through this, but I got a lot of conflicting information as to what exactly are the worst risk factors. I have heard that credit issues are big red flags, but I have nothing to back that up.

I agree that you shouldn't lie on the form, though. There is a big disclaimer on the front that you can face jail time if they find you out.
posted by backseatpilot at 4:51 AM on January 29, 2009

In my case, the only thing they asked my references for was a list of other people who knew me. Those were the people that they really interviewed about me.

Also, nthing "don't lie".
posted by Dorri732 at 6:02 AM on January 29, 2009

And the defaulted loan will be a bigger problem than if you don't have taken drugs or your lack of a degree. With security clearances they don't want you to be financially vulnerable.

And I'd also say don't sweat it, and be honest. A friend of mine got one even though he admitted to drug use. in his case his biggest stumbling block was he was friends with a dual national. He still got the clearance without issue.

I've also been called to verify information that someone put down. I couldn't honestly answer some of the questions. Like I would know where my friend lived when he was in grade school.

They're assessing you risk, not your life choices.

I also had a minimum clearance at one point, and I don't even remember the process anymore, so it must not have been that onerous or traumatic. I was also around people with much higher clearances than mine, so I'd often have to leave the room when certain briefings happened.

I don't think I'd let yourself get worked up over anything here. Worst case they deny you. This is much better than getting a clearance you weren't entitled to and having them find out after the fact that you obtained it under false pretenses.
posted by cjorgensen at 7:37 AM on January 29, 2009

Yeah, I agree.
Don't lie.

Martha Stewart went to jail
for lying about the insider trading,
not the insider trading itself.

If she had pled guilty to it,
she would have gotten a fine.
Instead, she lied and got her
broker to lie. Was caught, and
charged with perjury.

It's the coverup that will cost you.
posted by Sully at 7:48 AM on January 29, 2009

According to people who have gone through this process (actually for "secret" clearance, but it pertains to clearances in general), what your background information says about you is a whole lot more important than what it actually says. Didn't go to college? Maybe not a big deal for the job you're applying for, but misrepresenting it on your clearance form shows that you're willing to deceive the government before you're even employed. Defaulted on a loan? Doesn't say anything about what kind of employee you'll be, but repeated financial irresponsibilty does show that you're vulnerable to being influenced in the performance of your job for if the price is right (i.e., selling secrets).

Also, I don't think anyone's mentioned it yet, but outright lying or even concealing information by omission on your security clearance is probably a violation of 18 U.S.C. 1001 (depending on the nature of the job you're applying for and who is conducting the clearance process), which is punishable by big time fines and up to five years in prison.
posted by non sum qualis eram at 10:06 AM on January 29, 2009

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