The OpSec Blog

Security and privacy information and advice at home and abroad.

Ins and Outs of DS Security Clearances

with 5 comments

One of the conditions of employment in the Foreign Service is a Top Secret security clearance granted by the Bureau of Diplomatic Security.  I’ve linked to the excellent FAQ (pdf) in the sidebar, as the security clearance process is one of the most-asked about after getting a conditional offer of employment (COE).  Here are some typical questions and answers as they apply to the Foreign Service/DS clearance process.

Who adjudicates security clearances for State?

Agents and contractors of the Bureau of Diplomatic Security conducts the background investigation upon successful submission of your SF-86 form via eQip.  Your investigation results are then submitted to the Office of Personnel Security and Suitability (DS/SI/PSS) for adjudication.  Please note that DS/PSS is not the same as the Defense Security Service (DSS) which grants most Department of Defense (DoD) clearances.

How long will my clearance take?

DS investigators are typically given 90 days to complete a standard investigation.  The majority of clearances are finished in this approximate time frame.  However, if your situation demands further attention it is possible for the clearance process to take significantly longer.

What factors affect the length of time my clearance will take?

Of the common issues listed in the PDF, for Foreign Service prospectives the major issues tend to be past foreign residence or foreign contacts.  Prior overseas experience to joining State is very common in the FS workforce.  Overseas experience in countries with which the US has a history of problems in the counterintelligence arena (you can use your imagination) will be investigated more thoroughly than less suspect countries.  Same with foreign relatives and spouses.

How can I make things go as smoothly as possible once I’m ready to begin my investigation?

The single most important thing to do is to fill out the SF-86 as thoroughly as possible.  The form is long and very tedious, but it is worth spending the time to make sure you have a contact for every place you’ve lived and job you’ve held.  You should ask these contacts if it is OK to have someone contact them for a possible in-person interview by an investigator at their convenience.  If they say no, have two backup contacts.  If you’re using good friends as contacts, ensure that their contact information is current.  If you absolutely have nobody that can vouch for your location or employment, document the hell out of it.  Pay stubs, credit card statements, rent receipts… anything that you can think of to explain the gap in your record.

Err on the side of more information, not less.

It should also be noted that the strategy of only listing your good friends and others who you believe will tell a nice story about you is often counterproductive.  Every investigator expects this strategy, and goes to great lengths to get to “the next levels” of contacts by asking your initial contacts who else they should talk to.  When I think about it, the best clearance reference would be someone who said something along the lines of, “I couldn’t stand the guy personally, but they’re probably one of the most upstanding people I’ve ever worked with.”

What would be the possible reasons for a clearance denial?

As sad as it is, the odds of you actually being unfavorably adjudicated for a clearance are very slim.  I’ve only heard of it happening to a handful of people.  That being said, debt is the number one reason clearances are denied.  And not just any kind of debt- crushing debt that exemplifies irresponsibility.  The kinds of people who are denied clearances usually don’t make it past the Oral Assessment/Board of Examiners anyways.

Will I have to take a polygraph?

No.  Foreign Service employees are not required to take a polygraph examination at any point in their career with the State Department as a condition for maintaining their employment.

What is the single most important factor in being favorably adjudicated?

This should be common sense, but people seem to lose sight of it.  Honesty.  Honesty honesty honesty. You might think omitting that drug experimentation phase in college is a good idea, but the simple fact of the matter is that omission is much more damaging than admission and subsequent mitigation.  Keeping with the drug example, if all of your references vouch that you haven’t touched drugs since college, that you’ve been an upstanding coworker and/or citizen, and that you have been active in drug support groups, odds are it’s not going to affect your clearance.  The same mitigation strategy can work for pretty much anything- credit card debt, alcohol, reckless driving, etc.

Keep in mind that with any clearance you’re going to have to go through a renewal process in a few years.  If you lie the first time and something comes to light during your renewal, that’s grounds for instant termination of employment and a personal escort from post to the airport.  I’ve seen it happen, and you do not want to be that person.

Got any other questions about security clearances?  Leave a question in the comments and I’ll do my best.


5 Responses

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  1. Very helpful indeed. My top secret clearance is well past 90 days already. How can I know what’s going on? Do I have the right to know?

    Philip Dayal

    26/04/2011 at 10:24

  2. Thanks so much for all the great information. I am currently 17 years old, in my senior year of high school, and I know without a shred of doubt that I want to go into the Foreign Service. However, I am a teenager and I have done some teenager things. I have smoked marijuana more times than I can count, and I have taken ecstasy twice. Aside from this, I am a very studious and hardworking person, and I am currently awaiting an admission decision from the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service. My question is, you say there is no polygraph test required for the Foreign Service, correct? But I thought that was one of the main hurdles in becoming an FSO. It seems Foreign Service is synonymous with polygraph in most people’s minds. Is this just a complete misconception? Can one become a US ambassador without ever having taken a polygraph test? And if I do end up having take one, will I be immediately dismissed on the grounds of my mild (past) drug use?

    Thanks very much


    21/12/2011 at 18:47

  3. Very informative, thanks. I have been in adjudications with State for over 6 months, and have only been told my file is pending. Is there anything I can do? I recieved my COE almost a year ago now. Thanks


    02/07/2013 at 16:01

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