An Introduction to Security Clearances

A service member works on a computer at Osan Air Base, Republic of Korea.
A service member utilizes a computer system for operational work at the Harden Theater Air Control Center, Osan Air Base, Republic of Korea, Aug. 20, 2014. (Senior Airman Racheal E. Watson/U.S. Air Force photo)

What is a security clearance?

The federal government gives selected personnel or companies a security clearance as a means of determining their eligibility for access to classified information or facilities. There are three levels of personnel clearance -- confidential, secret and top secret.

What agency processes clearances?

The Department of Defense (DoD) is responsible for managing security clearances. The defense activity known as the Defense Industrial Security Clearance Office (DISCO) is part of the Defense Security Service (DSS). DISCO processes and adjudicates personnel clearances.

Related: Search for security clearance jobs.

How long does a civilian contractor's personnel clearance remain in effect?

Normally, your clearance remains in effect as long as you remain employed by a cleared contractor and, like in the military, as long as you are expected to require access to classified information as part of your job. Also like the military, civilians are required to comply with periodic reinvestigation requirements.

What do active, current and expired statuses mean?

A personnel security investigation (PSI) is what security clearances are based on; they are either "current" or "expired." A PSI is current as long as it is not more than 15 years old for a confidential, 10 years old for a secret or five years old for a top-secret clearance. If the PSI has expired or there has been a break in service of two years or more, a person must be nominated for a new clearance and must complete a new application in the same manner as a person who never had a clearance. That is why it is important to a potential employer that you keep your PSI up to date or renew within two years.

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Is it possible to reinstate a clearance after it has been terminated?

Yes. If you had a clearance and the investigation is still current, the clearance can be reinstated by the agency that originally granted the clearance, or it can be accepted and granted by a different agency or company. Of course, this reinstatement must occur within two years. As a rule, this only requires the submission of a new application.

If my clearance lapses, how long does it take to process a security clearance?

The average, end-to-end processing time for all types of clearances is more than 200 days.

Will my clearance process be faster, because I had a clearance three years ago?

The answer is no if you previously held a secret or confidential clearance and maybe if your previous level was top secret and completed less than five years ago. If so, there is a possibility that a very small portion of the new investigation will not have to be repeated, which may speed up the process a little.

What can I do if my clearance is denied or revoked?

You may appeal an adverse decision by filing a notice of appeal. You must then submit a written appeal brief. The appeal brief is reviewed by the appeal board at the Defense Office of Hearings and Appeals (DOHA). An appeal can only be based on an error made by the administrative judge.

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