The Top 5 Things You Need To Do Before Submitting Your SF-86
A security clearance is a determination by the United States Government that a person or company is eligible for access to classified information. Security clearances can be issued by many United States Government agencies, including, but not limited to, the Department of Defense (DoD), the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Department of Energy (DoE), the Department of Justice (DOJ), and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
The Standard Form 86 (SF-86) Questionnaire (also known as the e-QIP when accessed online) is a 136-page questionnaire that individuals complete and which forms the basis for the government’s background investigations, reinvestigations, and continuous evaluations of persons under consideration for, or retention of, national security positions. Information demanded in the form includes where you have lived and traveled, your education, employment, as well as ties to foreign nationals and governments, criminal records, drug and alcohol use, and any relevant psychological conditions, as well as much more.
Your SF-86 Questionnaire will be checked and reviewed very carefully. If your paperwork is accurate and complete, and there are no red flags, your investigative case should move quickly through the system. However, if your paperwork is inaccurate or incomplete, you create extra work for the analysts and reviewers, investigators and adjudicators, and your case may drag on. Also, the investigators can get a glimpse of what type of person you are just by looking at how you filled out your SF-86.
The following are five things you should consider before submitting your SF-86.
- Be Honest
It should go without saying that anyone applying to access highly protected national security information—which, if improperly disclosed, could cause “exceptionally grave damage to the Nation”—must show that they live by the highest ethical standards in all aspects of their lives. Lying or omissions on the SF-86 will almost automatically disqualify you. Always, always, always tell the truth (even when it hurts)!
- Be Accurate
Not only do you need to be honest at all times, but you also need to be accurate. The SF-86 is exhaustingly long and thorough, containing questions and sub-questions that delve into minute details of your life. If you aren’t sure when you took that trip to France, but you know it was in either 2018 or 2019 (lucky you, right before the COVID-19 pandemic), don’t guess! You need to take time to research your own past to ensure all information on your SF-86 is accurate.
- Take Your Time and Read the Question!
This is a close cousin to “Be Accurate,” and well worth remembering. Different sections of the SF-86 ask for information from different timeframes, and some federal agencies include an addendum requesting additional information. Just because you have submitted a SF-86 for one agency does not mean you can mindlessly complete the SF-86 from, e.g., an agency in the intelligence community. Make sure you carefully read and understand the scope of each question every time you are asked to complete the SF-86.
- Be Complete
Another close cousin to “Be Accurate,” it is also imperative that your responses are complete. Don’t—in your rush to get the application over with (I get it, it’s a tedious process; but the United States Government won’t be sympathetic)—include almost all your foreign travel, but forget that one trip to Tijuana, Mexico. Or, list almost all your foreign contacts, but forget the two Russian foreign nationals who play on your weekly soccer team (in pre-pandemic times, of course). Or, disclosing every occasion where you smoked marijuana, but forgetting the one time you also tried your roommate’s Adderall. At worst, these mistakes will make you look like you are lying. At best, they make you look careless. Judgment is a critical component of security clearance determinations, and you must convince the government that you can be counted on to reliably safeguard the nation’s secrets.
We get it. Everyone has a past. Most people have lived a full life before accepting a position that requires a security clearance: You may have gotten into trouble with the law in high school, made some poor romantic decisions (for example, solicited prostitutes), or had a bad credit history that you have since overcome. You did the right thing by being honest, accurate, and complete on the form, but you also need to explain what happened and how you have changed. The passage of time helps a lot, but you should also include important milestones or other accomplishments that distance you from the person you were when you engaged in the prior bad behavior. Take advantage of opportunities in the SF-86 that invite you to provide additional information and explain any problems in your background.
In short, if you follow the above rules and do it right the first time, you will make the security clearance application process much easier and less stressful, and you will likely speed up your clearance decision. And, if you get stuck, call us.
This article also appeared in Government Executive on January 21, 2021.