Security clearance and previous drug experimentation
June 14, 2005 12:11 AM   Subscribe

How likely is it that someone would be given security clearance (confidential, secret, or top secret) if they experimented with various illegal drugs (including marijuana, acid, cocaine and crystal meth) during their college years (ending about 5-6 years ago) but who hasn't done anything since (and has no desire to anymore)?

In the research that I’ve done, I’ve seen some anecdotal evidence that seems to suggest that it’s unlikely, though possible to still get a security clearance with some past drug history. I’ve heard that the use of any sort of hallucinogenic drug is an automatic disqualifier, but I’m not sure if that’s true or not.

Anyone know further details about past drug use preventing someone from getting a security clearance?
posted by freshgroundpepper to Law & Government (23 answers total)
I'm not sure how the DoD does their analysis, but if it were me, I'd prefer to hire people with prior drug use than people with an extensive network of foreign friends.

If you just did drugs within your tight suburban clique, then it doesn't seem [to me] like you are much of a security risk. If your friends have powerful friends in countries that we keep secrets from, then you might be a security risk.

But drugs are illegal, so maybe they prefer that you either never did any drugs, or lie convincingly about them.

Empirically, check and see if any baby boomers have security clearances. If so, then you can probably do a lot of drugs and still get a clearance.
posted by b1tr0t at 12:29 AM on June 14, 2005

I looked at an application for a job with the FBI a while ago. They required that the applicant not have used marijuana more than n times in the last m years, so they definitely accept some drug use.

This probably makes it just a little bit less likely that you will get a security clearance, but to be honest if it were me, I wouldn't let it stop me.
posted by grouse at 12:50 AM on June 14, 2005

Oh it goes without saying, but tell the truth about everything they ask you.
posted by grouse at 12:50 AM on June 14, 2005

I was told they don't care about drug use more than 7 years ago.....and this was for a pretty high level of security clearance. Otherwise, where would we find a president?
posted by Instrumental at 12:54 AM on June 14, 2005

Ditto what grause said about telling the truth. Someone I know got pretty far into the State Department application process only to be promptly booted after he failed a polygraph question about drug use. The kicker is, he was told after the fact that if he hadn't lied about it, he would have been cleared for employment.

Also, from what I understand, pot use X years ago is not very significant, but harder drug use may be a problem.
posted by dicaxpuella at 1:19 AM on June 14, 2005

A college friend of my husband's is right now (or possibly just finished) getting clearance for the DoD and the CIA and a certain agency that won't be named because it bizarrely pretends it doesn't exist. :-) We know about it because my husband may get called as a character reference.

Friend had smoked pot a little and done acid twice--after all, Friend DJ'ed for a while--but this was all back in college, and we all graduated a few years ago. When going on interviews, Friend was honest about drug use, and specifically asked "is this okay?" about the past use. The organizations in question said oh sure, yes, because it was mild and years ago. They were, from what Friend told us, much much more interested in making sure there was absolutely nothing in one's past that could get one blackmailed, such as secretly visiting sex clubs or being a closeted gay or committing adultery--they asked a lot of very personal lifestyle questions.

So if you're totally honest and there hasn't been any recent use, I think you could have a decent shot. Certainly you'd have a much better shot than if you lied about it, which would probably be an automatic disqualifier. Good luck!
posted by Asparagirl at 2:15 AM on June 14, 2005

Yeah, don't ever lie even if sorely tempted.

A classic tempting question is "have you done anything illegal or questionable and haven't been caught?"
Own up to everything which may get you blackmailed in the future: that strip club you went to really drunk with your buddies; all your questionable buddies and weird family members; how many times you toilet-papered the college trees; the time when you threw a brick at police during some anti-globalisation protests; the approximate amount of drugs bought, used (but hopefully not sold..); any visits to "questionable foreign lands" ie: if you've been to Pakistan for over a year but prepared to give a detailed account of your whereabouts, etc, etc..
Good luck :)
posted by ruelle at 4:09 AM on June 14, 2005

if you've been to Pakistan for over a year *BE* prepared.. etc, etc..
posted by ruelle at 4:15 AM on June 14, 2005

The Department of Defense releases the "Adjudicative Desk Reference", which is effectively the manual they use to determine clearances. All your SF-96 questions and concerns are probably addressed in there. Others you wouldn't even think of, too.
posted by piro at 6:14 AM on June 14, 2005

Just to reiterate what's been said here, as I've been through the DoD clearance process: unless you're still using drugs, past use is generally not a problem, especially if it's been several years. Be excruciatingly honest about that and everything else. They're not looking for drug use as a reason on it's own to disqualify you for a clearance; what they are looking for is anything in your past that they don't know about which could be used against you by someone to convince you to pass information. If you've been honest and the agency investigating you knows everything a potential agent would know, then that agent has no leverage. That's it.

There has been some conflicting information here; different agencies have different standards they use to determine your suitability for the job, but (for example) the FBI's insistance on no drug use for X years, no more than 15 uses of marijuana and no other drug use of any kind (the standard when I looked into it a few years ago) is completely separate from a clearance investigation. The FBI is a law enforcement organization that (rightly or wrongly) wants all of it's employees to be strict law-abiding citizens. The Secret Service has a similar standard. However, getting a security clearance is all about the honesty. They just want to know everything about you so that your integrity and loyalty to the secrets you may know cannot be compromised.

Just be honest. Don't try any of the "tricks" to get around the polygraph (if you have to take one; they are usually only for Top Secret or above) like putting a tack in your shoe and stepping on it for every answer. Those tricks don't work; they just throw the test off so that the administrator can't get a read at all, and they will either make you do it again, or fail you. And remember that the qualifications for the job are separate from the qualifications for the clearance; I can't say it enough, if you're completely honest, you probably won't have to worry about the clearance. Drug use will probably not disqualify you; lying about it (and getting caught) most assuredly will.

On preview: piro's link.
posted by jennaratrix at 6:16 AM on June 14, 2005

Your odds aren't great. Cocaine and crystal meth are fat red flags, because (fairly or not) there is a view that (a) you'd likely have been exposed to quite a bit more unsavory a group of characters than with softer drugs, who might have influence over you and (b) that the use indicates quite a higher degree of recklessness or willingness to break the rules.
posted by MattD at 6:18 AM on June 14, 2005

Also, being involved with selling drugs at any time in your past is an automatic disqualifier, at least with the FBI. And for those advocating admitting to any wrongdoing in your past...remember that a polygraph/interview isn't like a confessional where your transgressions are forgiven. You can still be prosecuted for any crime you committed if the statute of limitations hasn't run out. Admitting your crimes is essentially a confession. Also, polygraphs can definitely be evaded, though your chances of doing so on your first try seem quite low. Many of the spies that have been caught by other means, easily evaded polygraphs for years. The polygraph is not some magical machine that can tell if you are lying. It is an interrogation tool that relies upon you believing that it works. The real
magic is the skill of the interrogator in making you think that he knows you are lying.
posted by jsonic at 7:29 AM on June 14, 2005

16 years of my career was with clearance.

Answer the questions honestly but succinctly. The polygraph is looking for lies, and if the session is not recorded, anything extra probably won't even go in your record or be mentioned again.

Remember this though, cuz it's the golden rule of clearance: If they want you bad enough, they will clear you.
posted by mischief at 7:59 AM on June 14, 2005

Like others have said: blackmail is the name of the game. If you're honest about your background (in life generally and during the poly), there's always a chance of getting the clearance
posted by If I Had An Anus at 9:04 AM on June 14, 2005

We have run a number of people at my organization through the secret process. There's two of us who are the notable "black sheep." One who has an even more checkered drug history than me and, I think, a disorderly arrest, had his provisional granted without a problem. My drug history is shorter but I also have some old bad business debt. My provisional is "hung up" - not denied, but it's unclear if they'll ever issue a provisional before the complete processing.

Our security officer's assessment was that the problem for me was the 1-2 punch: either on its own might not have been an issue but together it's enough to stop them from granting provisional.

As jennaratrix said, clearance is not a monolithic operation. Different agencies use different people to process and grant/deny them. There is some subjectivity to the process, but it can be said beyond a doubt that some drug use does not necessarily prevent you from getting clearance. Exactly where the dividing line is..... unclear.
posted by phearlez at 9:06 AM on June 14, 2005

Here is the relevant section from the FBI questionnaire:

The following questions pertain to the illegal use of drugs or drug activity. You are required to answer the questions fully and truthfully, and your failure to do so could be grounds for an adverse employment decision or action against you, but neither your truthful responses nor information derived from your responses will be used as evidence against you in any subsequent criminal proceeding. [bolded in response to jsonic's assertation]

a -- Since the age of 16 or in the last 7 years, whichever is shorter, have you illegally used any controlled substance, for example, marijuana, cocaine, crack cocaine, hashish, narcotics (opium, morphine, codeine, heroin, etc.), amphetamines, depressants (barbiturates, methaqualone, tranquilizers, etc.), hallucinogenics (LSD, PCP, etc.), or prescription drugs?

b -- Have you ever illegally used a controlled substance while employed as a law enforcement officer, prosecutor, or courtroom official; while possessing a security clearance; or while in a position directly and immediately affecting the public safety?

c -- In the last 7 years, have you been involved in the illegal purchase, manufacture, trafficking, production, transfer, shipping, receiving, or sale of any narcotic, depressant, stimulant, hallucinogen, or cannabis for your own intended profit or that of another?


One of my family members went through the FBI process ~5 years ago for Top Secret and I think the rules were automatic rejection for anything other than pot and that could only be 3 times in the last 10 years and no more than 15 times ever. Other agencies may or may not be as strict.

And as for polygraphs, one of the first questions is, "Have you now or ever done research, read books, or sought information on how to deceive a polygraph?" So lay off the research and just go in naturally and be 100% honest.
posted by karmaville at 9:34 AM on June 14, 2005

I'm kind of shocked that the Federal Government would go so easy on drugs. Not that they should be tougher, but I've been denied Police jobs because I've tried drugs. I've only done three drugs once each (pot, lsd, ecstasy) and haven't done any in almost three years, but it's still enough to get your application tossed for PDs.

From researching background investigations though, whatever you do, don't lie about it.
posted by dial-tone at 9:48 AM on June 14, 2005

Illegal prescription drugs, does that include Viagra (sans prescription)?
posted by geoff. at 10:45 AM on June 14, 2005

So is the President an exception to the rule?
posted by pmbuko at 10:47 AM on June 14, 2005

I was told they don't care about drug use more than 7 years ago.....and this was for a pretty high level of security clearance. Otherwise, where would we find a president?

Obviously elected officials don't need to be granted security clearance; otherwise we would have a democracy. Presidential appointees go through congress, not the DoD. A Regan Supreme Court nominee withdrew because it came out that he smoked weed.
posted by delmoi at 12:54 PM on June 14, 2005

Obviously elected officials don't need to be granted security clearance; otherwise we would have a democracy

Sorry, we would not have a democracy if the president needed to be cleared by the DoD.
posted by delmoi at 1:07 PM on June 14, 2005

Thanks for the clarification, karmaville, but you can still be prosecuted for past crimes. While the confession itself is not admissable, law enforcement would now know exactly where to start investigating for new evidence.

If you interpret the "information derived from your responses" section to imply that law enforcement cannot investigate the admitted crimes, then you've essential found a legal method of getting away with murder (and other crimes).
posted by jsonic at 1:08 PM on June 14, 2005

You might want to read Interviewing With An Intelligence Agency (or, A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To Fort Meade) [pdf]. It's a pretty solid first-person narrative about interviewing and going through the clearance process with the National Security Agency.
posted by ajr at 6:33 PM on June 14, 2005

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