Q Clearance
December 11, 2003 6:00 PM   Subscribe

I'm up for an internship at an NNSA-sponsored national lab. The position requires a "Q" clearance. I'm starting to get all paranoid about every little thing I've ever done wrong, of course. Can anyone tell me what types of things would prevent one from obtaining a "Q" clearance?
posted by answergrape to Law & Government (14 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Good luck! I can't directly answer the question, but I can give you some pointers.

Q clearance allows you to have access to some of the highest levels of confidential DOE information on a need to know basis (nuclear, national security, etc). Generally you will have L clearance before obtaining the Q (Q being 'higher'), which in itself can take several months to obtain. If you do not have L, I would inquire with whoever you can as to the process you will be following to obtain Q, as it could be intensive.

I am reasonably sure you will need to pass the polygraph examination. You will probably find Interviewing with the NSA (PDF) useful for getting a grasp on how you, neighbors, and family members will be interviewed, although their clearance levels are different to those of the DOE.

Put it this way, this level of clearance means what can be dug up, probably will be. Consider your options.
posted by wackybrit at 6:14 PM on December 11, 2003

i wonder if being a member here counts against you? ; >
posted by amberglow at 6:17 PM on December 11, 2003

My understanding is that Q clearance follows full field investigations conducted by the FBI. You'll have to fill out a huge form (they actually have special software to help you fill out the form) and they'll interview friends and family for holes in your answers. You'll have to sign something that gives the FBI permision to crawl up your ass with a microscope.

If you don't have anything to hide, and you're not a shady and suspicious person, you should be fine.

But this will take a loooooooong time. Months at best. Over a year more likely.

And yes, there is a good chance the FBI will be reading your posts here.

But I'm not an expert, that's just what I've heard.
posted by y6y6y6 at 6:23 PM on December 11, 2003

For instance, the FBI will be reading this gem:

"The emporer of America has chosen to bankrupt our country and send an invading army to occupy a mostly obsolete country that couldn't do anything to us if it wanted. And we foot the bill for his games. And we will be paying for it for a long time to come; spiritually, diplomatically, fiscally. Suddenly America, who once stood for freedom, is the red-white-and blue menace. Thanks dubya."

They'll probably ask you to expound on that, and how it relates to your pending access to top secret information.

(sorry for digging into your blog, just thought I'd give you a taste)
posted by y6y6y6 at 6:37 PM on December 11, 2003 [1 favorite]

And echoing wackybrit, I really have no idea what might kick you out of the running. I doubt that quote would cause them to deny your clearance. The last I heard a substantial percentage of the CIA feels that way.
posted by y6y6y6 at 6:43 PM on December 11, 2003

No, I'm glad you brought it up. If expressing an opinion, albeit a strong one, invalidates me, then it would not be a good move for me.
posted by answergrape at 6:43 PM on December 11, 2003

Not sure what level it is, but my dad has a very high security clearance, and I know our neighbors get visited once a year or so to ask if he is trying to overthrow the government. Both my parents have told me that as far as getting a security clearance, I shouldn't really worry about my past indiscretions. The trick is to be 100% honest. If you have dropped acid or smoked pot, tell 'em. It's the lie that gets you into serious trouble, not the actual acts. I guess if you eat babies then the act matters, but I'm just guessing you are worried about typical stuff like drug/warez/stuff you've said online/etc issues.
posted by gatorae at 6:45 PM on December 11, 2003

"If expressing an opinion, albeit a strong one, invalidates me"

As long as the opinion doesn't lead you to do "bad things" with classified information you're fine. The FBI knows your clearance will last longer than a particular White House resident. They're more interested in your character and honesty.

But drugs are a no no.
posted by y6y6y6 at 7:01 PM on December 11, 2003

y6y6y6 is about right, they don't muck around with Q, from what I've heard. The good news is, once you've got one, it puts you at an advantage for job opportunities, assuming you do nothing to lose it and you find the line of work is up your street.

Off the top of my head, obvious problems might include anything non-trivially criminal in your history, a history of severe mental illness, membership of certain organizations considered a risk to national security, relationships with individuals from nations considered hostile to the US, a history of drug abuse, severe debt or other factors that might make you a target for blackmail or coersion. If you lie during the process, as others have mentioned, it won't do you any favors.

I am not an expert nor do I have any such clearance.
posted by normy at 7:01 PM on December 11, 2003

Some types of things that can prevent you from receiving a clearance or access to information are those that could be used as leverage against you. The investigators are concerned about someone discovering something embarassing in your past and blackmailing you.

The things they look for change with the times. I've seen people lose clearances (but more often just access) for homosexuality, drug use, seeing a therapist, excessive debt, membership in radical groups, etc., etc. At the same time, I've known people who were "suffering" from those who were granted a clearance. (One woman I know with a Secret clearance had been convicted of dealing drugs before she got the clearance. Although she had the clearance, she was turned down for Special Access because of the conviction.) The key for them seemed to be that the bad mark was discovered at a time when it wasn't so politically incorrect as other bad marks.

I just went through a periodic update a year ago. The investigator seemed to be concentrating on my finances, so maybe excessive debt is the no-no de jour nowadays.

You may also be denied access if relatives and close friends live in foreign countries. (The country doesn't seem to matter and it doesn't always happen.) A woman I know was denied access because her parents lived in Brazil. One of the chief engineers at Raytheon was granted access despite the fact that his wife was a Polish national (this was during the Cold War). Not much you can do about that, so don't sweat it -- if they want you bad enough, you won't have the clearance denied for that.

You will have to fill out a very thick form detailing your life 15 years back (or possibly your 18th birthday) -- where you lived, where you worked, where you went to school. You will also be asked for references of people who knew you during that time. (You don't have to come up people who knew you the entire time, but they will want the entire period covered by the group of references you give. Family and employers don't count.)

If you were applying for a simple Secret clearance, they would probably stop after talking to the references you give. For higher levels of clearance, they will ask your references for other people who knew you and then they will go talk to those people. If they find anything interesting, they will follow that up until they're satisfied.

Don't be tempted to fudge on your application, thinking that they won't find out about that short stint in the city jail for DWI or getting baked with your buddies at Christmas in your junior year. When you sign that form, you are swearing that you've told the truth about yourself. If they find out different, you can to to prison and/or pay a lot of money.

It used to take 6 - 8 months to complete an investigation at this level. With the backlog after 9-11 and the transfer of investigators to do other stuff, it might take anywhere from 4 months to a year to complete.

On preview, your opinions won't cause you to lose the clearance unless you are advocating the violent overthrow of the government. Of course, some opinions will be taken as red flags that warrant deeper investigation, so don't be surprised if you hear that your references have been asked about things you've said on your blog.
posted by joaquim at 7:08 PM on December 11, 2003 [2 favorites]

Well, seems like you'll either get it or you won't. What's the complicated deal?
posted by rudyfink at 1:37 AM on December 12, 2003

It's not that it's a complicated deal. I just wanted to know in advance what types of things are exclusionary. If they're looking for Pollyanna, then I'm out of luck. It doesn't sound like that's the case.

Thanks for all that helpful information.
posted by answergrape at 7:17 AM on December 12, 2003

Your own travel in and out of the country (even if it's to Canada or Mexico) can also seriously delay getting the clearance. My stepfather used to be in the NSA, had some kind of clearance, but after he left the agency, he toodled around for a while working on steam trains and doing long haul trucking (mostly to Canada.) When he applied for another gummint job and had to re-up his clearance, he couldn't get a temporary clearance because of his trips out of the country, and it's been almost a year now with the regular investigation and still going. It probably won't keep him from getting the clearance, but it's preventing him from getting it quickly.
posted by headspace at 8:36 AM on December 12, 2003

This post about DoD industry clearances is probably relevant, although I think it's not exactly the same thing.
posted by lazy-ville at 8:59 AM on December 12, 2003

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