Info on the foreign service background check.
July 28, 2011 6:33 AM   Subscribe

How in depth does the Foreign Service background check go?

I found out a few weeks ago that I passed the exam for the foreign service. If I get to the final stage of the overall entrance process (they call it "the orals"), a background check will be conducted before I can be assigned somewhere. Does anyone know how in depth this check will go? Do I need to purge out all social media accounts of anything that might be perceived as controversial, inappropriate, etc? What about editing any blogs I have, or websites I own or contribute to? I'm not the kind of person who has a thousand pictures of me drinking alcohol, but I do speak my opinion on political matters, and I do have some written materials that are more than PG. Is it better to get rid of these things and risk losing some of my current audience, or is the background check only searching for huge red flags, such as crimes committed? If I should get rid of any questionable material, when should I start?
posted by anonymous to Law & Government (8 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
(You might want to add an email address in the future.)

Assuming that you'll be going for secret clearance...

* The number one concern is that anyone could potentially blackmail you. Thus, drug addition, gambling, etc. - something that someone could seriously hold over your head - is the primary concern.

* They're going to talk to people that know you and if people that know you think that you have political leanings that are opposed to the U.S. government, that is going to be a problem for you. Concern for what people will say is of much more importance that whatever is online about you.

* However, that being said, personally, I would probably do a sweep of your public persona. Once you're in, you'll pretty much need to stop writing about such topics on your blog/twitter, etc. For all intents and purposes, you're a representative of the USG no matter what you're doing.

FWIW, getting through the orals is very difficult. And even after that, it is going to be awhile before you'd be working on your clearance. Plus it takes at least a year and a half, if not more, to get to the point where you'd be assigned.
If I were you, after passing the orals, I'd work on pulling together 7-10 years of your life... all addresses, multiple people that can verify that you lived/worked/went to school at various places. It is a huge ordeal getting this information.
posted by k8t at 6:44 AM on July 28, 2011

UK experience, FWIW:

The check is fairly thorough. Someone I know who went through it, for example, got told that their brother in law was fencing stolen goods (which the candidate already knew, but was surprised they found out). The check is done by professionals, and if you were to join a branch of the intelligence services, for example, would involve, possibly, someone covertly approaching friends and acquaintances innocuously and essentially mining for leads.

They aren't looking for pictures of you drunk. They don't expect you to have no embarrassing things in your past or to have never committed any thoughts to the online world. They don't, within reason, necessarily care if you've taken a drug or two in the past. Another friend of mine who joined was a liked a bit of e and blow as a student and it didn't seem to matter.

What they primarily care about are things that could, in time, compromise security by being used against you. They also care about things in your background that indicate that you might already have strong inclinations towards another country, organisation and so forth whose aims are counter to that of your country.
posted by MuffinMan at 6:46 AM on July 28, 2011

It's a Top Secret clearance, actually. It is too late to purge now. They can find anything you have had on the net in the past.
posted by Gringos Without Borders at 6:52 AM on July 28, 2011

Possibly the single biggest factor in clearance checks is your financial stability. What they're looking for is:
a) can you be bought?
b) is there something that you can be blackmailed with?

The one key thing is not to lie on either the interview or the paperwork. For example, in answer to the "have you ever done drugs" if your answer is "Yes, I smoked the occasional bowl in college" then you might still get cleared. If your answer is "nope, never done it, won't touch it, that stuff is evil" and it turns up in the investigation that you took a puff off of someone's joint a year ago then you're in jeopardy...

This comes up about every couple months on the green. A search for "clearance" will find a a bunch of info.
posted by Runes at 7:26 AM on July 28, 2011

For the average person who has nothing super out of the ordinary in their past (light drug use in college, can answer "No" to the "Have you ever had sex with an animal?" question that always comes up, etc.) the most important aspect of your background is your financials, specifically the amount of debt you have. Student loans won't get you in trouble (what FSO doesn't have these?) but large amounts of credit card deb, a few large high interest loans or open collection accounts will get you flagged.
posted by Loto at 7:31 AM on July 28, 2011

My understanding is that it goes very deep, and that they're not necessarily looking for evidence of you drinking or lighting up. Purging at this point is probably unwise, as it shows that you have something to hide (which is the #1 thing that you don't want them to think.)

And, yeah. What others have said. They're more interested in making sure that you're not under any kind of duress or blackmail.
posted by schmod at 7:45 AM on July 28, 2011

If it is top secret clearance, 10 years of background.
posted by k8t at 8:47 AM on July 28, 2011

What Runes said. I haven't done it myself, but have friends that have gone through it, and they all say that you want to be honest about everything, even and especially illegal activity. Things like drug use or a car accident won't lock you out immediately, even something like a conviction might only require you to keep your nose clean and wait five years or so to apply/reapply. But lying is the ballgame. They don't want you to *hide* anything, especially from them.

(This was the dealbreaker for me back when I was considering such a gig: not that I have anything I'd particularly want to hide in such a circumstance, but the idea that I'd be agreeing to allowing my life and anything I did or said or thought to be an open book to a government is something I find deeply disturbing.)
posted by the luke parker fiasco at 9:40 AM on July 28, 2011

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