Clearance, Clarence
March 17, 2009 1:27 PM   Subscribe

I have to get a security clearance for my internship at a national lab this summer. I am fairly clueless as to a couple of things.

Who should I ask to serve as references? Can I ask my boyfriend and my parents? Or are family members not allowed to answer? How well does someone have to know me to be considered a viable reference?

If you have served as a reference, what kind of things did they ask you? If I know what information they will be looking for, I can better direct my selection of references. I don't have anything to hide, so I guess it's not that big of a deal, but I'd like to be cautious in who I choose.

Thanks, Metafilter.
posted by derogatorysphinx to Law & Government (20 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
From what I recall of the process I went through, listing close relatives was discouraged (possibly even outright prohibited). As a young person, I recommend putting down professors and/or high school teachers that know you well. Additionally, friends and neighbors who know you (beyond simple "hi, how are you" when passing on the street) are also good. They will typically be asked questions about your character (are you an upstanding member of society), whether you are involved in any illegal activities, or have foreign ties that might pose a conflict of interest for you. It's really not that big of a deal, especially if you've led a pretty clean-cut life as you seem to imply. And if your references don't know the answer to a question, it is usually not a problem. They don't have to know every intimate detail of your life; the investigator is just trying to gain as objective an understanding as possible about who you are.

In addition to getting my own clearance, I was also interviewed as a reference for a classmate's clearance. The investigator was interested to know who my friend lived with, whether he was in a relationship, whether he had any drug problems or other addictions, money problems, etc. If wasn't sure of the answer, I simply said "I don't know" or "not to the best of my knowledge" and the investigator seemed satisfied with that (as far as the interview went).
posted by Nothlit at 1:35 PM on March 17, 2009

You'll have to list anyone and everyone (assuming this is a TS clearance) you've ever known, anyway, so just start making a long list of these folks. They'll talk to your family members whether you list them or not.

What these security folks are going to ask your references will depend on the context in which you offer their names. For example, you'll list people as you knew them during a certain time period (even if you continue your relationship to the present), so they will ask about events that occured during that time frame (employers, education, etc.). But, the most important thing they'll look for is "who do you know that also knew derogatorysphinx during this time frame?". They'll want to contact the folks you didn't list in order to talk with them, to ensure that you haven't selected folks who will present a onesided recap of your relations.

To recap, depending on the level of clearance (if this is just a confidential, there's not much to it, but it gets progressively more invasive as you go up), they'll ask a lot of stuff, and so long as you've never been a member of any societies looking to overthrow the government, or spent a lot of time out of the country where it's difficult to verify what you've been doing, you should be fine. You can memail me if you have any further questions, if you'd like.
posted by jasondbarr at 1:35 PM on March 17, 2009

Make sure to warn your references. I got a call one night that went something like this:
them "Is this GregR?"
me "Yes, who is this?"
them "The Department of Defense...."
posted by gregr at 1:38 PM on March 17, 2009 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for the answers so far. I suspected most of this, and I guess it's normal to be a little unsure about what people are going to say about me!
posted by derogatorysphinx at 1:39 PM on March 17, 2009

I was a reference for the security clearance when my boyfriend started working at a national lab, and as I recall, they called and asked me three questions. One of them was "Is he punctual?" (which really cracked me up) and the other two I don't remember -- I think they were slightly less ridiculous, security-wise, but not really probing, either.
posted by cider at 1:46 PM on March 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

A few people have asked me to be references for them--two friends from college and one former co-worker. As I recall, the interviewer asked me general things about their personalities and personal histories and more specific things about their work histories, politics, and international travel (as far as I knew about them).
posted by Sidhedevil at 1:48 PM on March 17, 2009

The level of clearance is important, to answer your question.

For a Secret clearance, the most your reference may get is a letter with a postcard to return, with a checkbox: "Do you know this person?"

Top Secret (TS) clearances probably involve an interview with someone from the DoD or DoE, or perhaps just a contractor who works for that agency.

I'd be surprised if a summer intern was given a TS clearance -- costs money and takes time.
Also there's an even lower level Confidential clearance, and some contractor jobs require filling out an 85P security questionaire which requires your supplying references (who probably won't even be bothered).
posted by Rash at 1:49 PM on March 17, 2009

Response by poster: I'm not sure what kind of clearance it is. The form says "Site Access Security Questionnaire."
posted by derogatorysphinx at 1:52 PM on March 17, 2009

Best answer: Congrats! I work at a national lab, and we have many summer interns who do great things during their time here.

Be sure to warn people in advance that someone may be a'callin to discuss you.

Also be sure that you were completely and painfully honest in your clearance form information. If you lie or leave out significant things that they specifically ask about, they will probably find out, and your application may be denied. I find that the "owning your history" portion of the process can be theraputic.

Email me off-list if you have specific questions.
posted by answergrape at 1:59 PM on March 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

A few years back I was a reference for a friend who was being screened for an FBI position; while most of the questions I was asked have already been mentioned by the respondents above (mainly things about the nature of my relationship with the applicant, whether or not I knew of any drug problems or other illegal activities he'd ever been involved in, etc.), they also asked not only about other people that both my friend and I knew, but also whether I knew of any illegal activities any of THEM had been involved in that could in any way affect my friend - I wish I could remember the exact wording, but the gist of it had to do with wanting to know if any of our mutual contacts might ever try to blackmail my friend or otherwise draw him in to illegal dealings of theirs ... I would imagine that these types of questions were geared for a relatively high-level security clearance, though, so of course YMMV.

(Either way, though, I've got to second gregr's reminder to be sure you give your references a heads-up - even WITH my friend's warning it was still jarring enough the morning I went into work and the first message on my phone started with "Good morning, DingoMutt, this is Agent So-and-so from the FBI ..." I needed NO wake-up coffee that morning!)
posted by DingoMutt at 2:03 PM on March 17, 2009

Best answer: I just went through the process of being a reference for a friend for a security clearance.

It consisted of two interviews, one in person (at Starbucks) and one on the phone. They asked about the person's history, how they handled money, whether they were every unemployed, where they had traveled to in the time I knew them, whether they were married or had any children, whether they had alcohol and drug problems, whether I trusted them, and whether I thought they were the type of person who was likely to be blackmailed. Essentially they were trying to get a picture of the person's character.

It was all very exciting.

I'm glad, BTW, that my friend warned me first -- I do get nervous when federal agents ring.

A final thought -- while I'd probably leave out victimless negative details in a job reference for a friend, I was pretty honest with the whole security clearance business.
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 2:13 PM on March 17, 2009

Best answer: I would put down as references people who know you well. I would say that it's more important that they know you, and have known you for a while, than they be professors or teachers or some other "responsible adult." I believe you can't put down relatives, but anyone else is game.

This isn't like employment references where the credentials or respectability of the person you're using as a reference really matters: what matters is what they can say about you. The only important qualification is that they are a basically upstanding citizen (don't put down someone who's in jail) and can generally string words together into coherent sentences in response to a question (don't put down someone who's stoned/drunk/whatever all the time). Also, don't put people down who have problems dealing with authority or who might take a call from a DoD investigator as an opportunity to "mess with the man" a bit.

If you put down someone you just met this year as a reference, that's pretty useless — they're not going to be able to answer any of the background questions the investigator is trying to check.

If you have friends or colleagues you've known for a while who have security clearance, or have even filled out the paperwork or dealt with the government, they would be good to put down — they will probably be familiar with the information that the investigator is trying to check.

I have gone through an number of background investigations and also served as a reference for several friends and colleagues, and there really isn't anything to stress out about, as long as you don't have something lurking in your past that you're trying to hide.

Also: depending on what agency you're getting the clearance for, different people will do the investigations. It's my understanding that the FBI does some, the CIA and NSA do their own, and that the military's and most USG civilians' are done by a 'central clearinghouse' that's staffed by contractors. I have only dealt with the latter one.
posted by Kadin2048 at 2:44 PM on March 17, 2009

Also ... if you are just applying for a SECRET clearance and you don't have any relatives, significant others, or family members living outside the US or any other ex-US entanglements, your references will probably not get called.

The only time I've gotten a call, as a reference on someone's SECRET clearance, is when the person in question had spent a lot of time outside the US that the investigator was obviously trying to account for.

For TS, the story is completely different. In that case your references will almost certainly be contacted and it's not totally unheard-of for investigators to drop in on neighbors or landlords of places you supposedly lived. (However I don't know if that's routine or just if something's shifty in your story.)
posted by Kadin2048 at 2:48 PM on March 17, 2009

The whole process is long and tedious, just like the work you'll be doing, but it isn't weird. They aren't going to ask your friends if you have sex with goats, they will ask about criminal activity, drugs and alcohol, and employment stuff.

They treat your friends like a cop would treat them. If you are okay with that, you have nothing to worry about. Just warn them first.
posted by bensherman at 2:55 PM on March 17, 2009

Surely they should tell you what sort of references they want? I went through TS clearance (non-US) and the form was very explicit - I could only use people I had known for at least 5 years, and that I had seen in person in the last year, I couldn't use immediate family or anyone who lived with me, etc. (Made it quite hard, actually).

If they don't tell you, why not ask what they're looking for? It can't hurt, and it may save time and frustration.

Questions were similar to those that MC Lo Carb mentioned above.
posted by Infinite Jest at 2:56 PM on March 17, 2009

Anyone know how getting a clearance with the State Department is different.
posted by Allan Gordon at 3:08 PM on March 17, 2009

If it's an actual Q clearance, the hardest part will be filling out the damn form. When I did it, I had to then type my form into a PC, which validated the input and would not let me leave anything out. I would not have guessed ahead of time the level of detail I needed. Example: 3 people who have known you for at least X amount of time, not family. Ok, reasonable. Now, for those people: full name (first middle last), current phone number, current address, plus a bunch of other details I had to actually call the people and ask about. It was ridiculous. However, those people never got called.

The one time I got called about someone else, the FBI called my workplace, and since I was out, told my supervisor they needed to talk to me regarding "an investigation" they were doing, very mysterious-like. It made everyone suspicious of me for a while. So, you may want to warn your references to warn THEIR family and friends as well.

About the backlog of investigations: you can get an interim clearance until you can be investigated. Meaning, you can still work as if you had the clearance. The security office handles that, you don't have to do anything special.
posted by ctmf at 5:31 PM on March 17, 2009

It looks like your clearance maybe different, but I had to complete an ordinary background investigation for non-sensitive positions in the last year (even though I've already been with the federal govt for 2 years...) and I was a little surprised at the extent to which they actually did contact my references seeing as how it was not a high clearance of any kind.

They will not want relatives, although you may be able to list your boyfriend as a reference and they will probably ask for your parents' information in another section. There might be additional requirements like when you knew the person or that they aren't currently residing outside the U.S. The questionnaire I did required a verifier for every address, school, job, etc., and since the time period covered college and other tumultuous times for me, I burned through most of the people I know regardless of whether I really wanted to list them.

They did call or meet with people for mine (and asked for even more people to talk to, as some here have mentioned). From what I've heard back, a lot of the questions regarded a) fact-checking and depth of relationship, b) illicit activities and other things I could be blackmailed with (civil actions, debts, etc.) in a way that would harm the government/nation, or c) my likelihood to "put another nation's interests before those of the U.S." I sat for a questionnaire for my coworker and noticed the same type of questions.

I wouldn't worry too much about who you pick other than people you don't mind asking a little favor of in the event they are actually called. Maybe people with a sense of humor so you can have a chuckle at the whole thing together. If you do have anything funky in your background, just be upfront about it and show action to resolve it, if applicable. Have fun with all the paperwork!
posted by zizania at 7:08 PM on March 17, 2009

I've been a reference for a few friends, and my experience is the following:

They are looking to make sure that the information that the applicant put down is correct. When I did one for a civilian job with a Fed agency, it was pretty straightforward. "Do you know this person, how well, are they a responsible person?"

For a law enforcement position with the Feds, it was a bit more involved. Was I aware of various foreign trips he had taken, and the context of them? Was I aware of schooling he had done? How would I characterize his level of responsibility? And the killer, "Would you recommend this person for a position of trust and authority with the Federal Government?" In this interview, there were things I wasn't aware of, and I just said so. The person got the job.

A couple others were basically the same- for one, I even got the impression they were investigating me to some extent.

Advice- be honest on the forms, tell your friends to be honest.
posted by gjc at 7:31 AM on March 18, 2009

The investigators asked my neighbors how I kept my lawn and if I held wild parties. And they took interviews from friends-of-friends who were not on my list. So know they may ask almost anyone about anything.
posted by answergrape at 10:17 AM on March 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

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