America’s Background Check for Top Secret Clearance

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In light of recent developments concerning access to top secret information by personnel in the White House, let’s look into the type of background check used when granting such permission.

Government-approved contractors, those holding political office, or employees of some government entity including military personnel needing access to Sensitive Compartmented Information (SCI) must complete a Single Scope Background Investigation (SSBI), or Standard Form (SF) 86, Questionnaire for National Security Positions, the form used to apply for a Security Clearance (CONFIDENTIAL, SECRET, TOP SECRET).

According to the US State Department’s website, “top secret” is the highest level of security clearance, and having this clearance gives you access to classified national security information.

In spite of its name, the SSBI is not considered an investigation per se, but “an access determination based on an explicit need to access (top secret or SCI) intelligence information.”

To even apply, the applicant’s employer must sponsor the individual.

The new form SF86 Electronic Questionnaire for Investigation Processing (eQIP) uses an electronic version of the Security Clearance Questionnaire and contains the same questions and information as the SF 86. The Standard Form 86 (SF 86)/(eQIP) is an online form and provides general information about completing the form and where to get help if needed.

The application covers the past ten years for information on job history, finances, and education. Personal information including references and relationships for the past seven years will also be reviewed.

Considerations include many very personal details including:

  • The person’s allegiance to the United States
  • Foreign influence
  • Foreign preference
  • Sexual behavior
  • Personal conduct
  • Financial considerations
  • Alcohol consumption
  • Drug involvement
  • Emotional, mental, and personality disorders
  • Criminal conduct
  • Security violations
  • Outside activities
  • Misuse of information technology systems

Applicants are warned to be completely transparent. “If you leave critical people, contacts, places you have lived or visited, foreign business conducted, or other ties to foreigners or foreign governments, you will likely be denied your clearance.

Or your clearance will require further scrutiny and could be significantly delayed – even up to a year or more. Until you fully explain your foreign dealings, the government can restrict your ability to access classified information which may prevent you from doing your job depending upon the job requirements.”


Applicants must list not only his or her “current spouse, fiancé, or cohabitant of a romantic nature, but also any former spouse(s); including current and former in-laws.” Oh, and he or she must be certain to provide residential addresses for the last 10 years, without leaving any gaps in time.

Now that’s an intense background check!

While most employers will not need screening for government clearances – nor are those services offered by HireRight – that doesn’t diminish the importance of traditional background screening. Employees may have a job that deals with sensitive information—data that, albeit not top secret, in the wrong hands, could jeopardize the survival of an entire organization. So of course a thorough background check is necessary. The candidate’s public records may be reviewed, including criminal record. References and education may be examined and confirmed. And a drug test may also be part of the check. If the employee will be dealing with cash or financial matters, the candidate’s financial information, including filings for bankruptcy, may be included.

In today’s data-driven and security-conscious society, an employee who misrepresents information on his or her resume, particularly at the executive level, can devastate a business. And job candidates recognize and appreciate that thorough background checks are necessary to help ensure the health and safety of not only an organization but all of its employees.

While your organization may not handle government top secret information and won’t require an SF 86- level background screening program, that doesn’t mean that your sensitive data isn’t of significant value and shouldn’t be kept secret.  By developing a robust background screening program your organization can help ensure its secrets and workforce stay safe and secure.

Lewis Lustman

Lewis Lustman is a content marketer who enjoys developing materials that engage, inform, challenge, and hopefully entertain my audience. Lewis is a former journalist for Los Angeles Magazine and the Los Angeles Times, and has worked for a number of leading advertising, marketing, technology, and PR firms over the years. Interested in a topic that he hasn't yet tackled? Drop him a line in the comments section!

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