A quick overview of the security clearance process

By Bill Taylor

It seems to me that lotsa news media folks go out of their way to play the “gotcha” game with members of the current administration. By that I mean they seize opportunities to find what appear to be contradictory or inappropriate statements/ positions by various officials including the president. One favorite mechanism is to pose questions that kinda remind me of the classic , “Have you stopped beating your wife yet?” Yep, they bring to mind a line from Shakespeare, “The empty vessel makes the greatest sound.” (Henry V, Act IV, Sc. 4) Lotsa “sound and fury” but barren of knowledge.

What kinda jump-started me on this subject was an occurrence during a recent joint press conference with the president and the prime minister of Australia. Rather than asking about US/Australia relations or activities, one reporter insisted on questioning the president about the status of his son-in-law’s security clearance – namely, that after a year in an important position with the administration he has not yet received approval for access to the highest level, most sensitive information. She demanded to know what he was going to do about it – to which he replied that his chief-of-staff is responsible for such matters and is handling it. Know what? That reporter obviously had no idea what is involved in granting security clearances but was hoping for a “gotcha” moment.

This incident came up in a conversation with a long-time reader who commented she didn’t know what is involved in the security clearance process either and observed that likely neither do many others. She gently suggested I might help educate her and other readers on this “hot potato” political issue. And, so, at the risk of “preaching to the choir” of the thousands of folks hereabouts who are familiar with this process, here is a quick, general overview.

An individual having a security clearance, such as Confidential, Secret, or Top Secret, simply means that person is considered trustworthy to have access to material at that level, but actual access depends on the particular responsibilities and duties involved with the person’s position. But how are clearances granted?

The process starts with the subject completing one or more forms that provide information such as date and place of birth, social security number, schooling, employment, current and former residences, and lotsa other stuff. This information is reviewed for completeness – such as unexplained gaps in employment or residences – and apparent discrepancies must be reconciled.

The candidate is also subjected to a national agency check of law enforcement and other organizations to determine if there is any derogatory information. The length of time to “clear” an individual depends on the findings of the background investigation and the level of clearance being sought with several months being not uncommon. If all is in order, the individual is granted an appropriate level clearance. But that’s not the whole story here.

Some material, known as special “compartmented’ or “codeword” information, is so sensitive that an individual must undergo an additional extended background investigation to be granted access – a Top Secret clearance isn’t sufficient. I personally know this probe may take up to a year or more to complete. In the interim the subject likely maintains a “regular” clearance.

What makes this stuff so sensitive that it requires such special protection? One reason is the content, that is, what the information reveals but a second is the means by which the information was obtained. Both must be protected and one way is by the use of “codewords”. Codewords are assigned to identify different “compartments” and individuals are granted access only to the particular compartment(s) necessary for their jobs or positions. Some material is so sensitive that it is secured in a unique facility to which authorized users must go, is “view only”, and may not be discussed outside that facility. How about them apples?

Okay, back to the president’s son-in-law. The last I heard, he has a Secret level clearance while his extended background investigation is continuing. His situation is complicated, however, because he is involved in the ongoing so-called “collusion” investigation and who knows what will come of that – or when.

Well, there you have it – a very simplified sketch of the security clearance process – which my curious reader now likely knows more about than that “gotcha” seeking reporter. At least that’s how it seems to me.


By Bill Taylor

Bill Taylor, a Greene County Daily columnist and area resident, may be contacted at [email protected]

Bill Taylor, a Greene County Daily columnist and area resident, may be contacted at [email protected]