What is Top-Secret Clearance?

Top-secret clearance, or TS/SCI, is granted by the government to employees and contractors who have a need to access classified national security information. Investigations include a review of past employment, criminal background, foreign influence and preference, psychological conditions, outside activities, and computer use.


The investigations can be intensive and cover a 10-year period at a minimum. Obtaining a clearance can open doors to additional employment opportunities, making the investment worth it in many cases.

Background Investigation

For anyone who wants to work in a position that requires access to classified information, the government requires that they undergo a background investigation. These investigations are conducted by the FBI and cover different periods depending on the level of clearance sought. They look into the applicant’s character, honesty, judgment, reliability and trustworthiness as well as their association with undesirable foreign nationals or individuals.

For top secret and sensitive compartmented information (SCI) clearances, the investigations are more extensive than those required for a confidential clearance. The investigators look at the applicant’s entire life and may interview relatives, friends, neighbors, coworkers and acquaintances as part of their research. They also check public records such as bankruptcy, divorce and criminal records. In addition, a psychological examination is usually required for the SCI level of clearance.

Applicants for a TS/SCI clearance must submit a security clearance application, known as an SF86, or equivalent. The SF86 asks for complete information about the applicant’s employment, education, travel and residence history. It includes questions about drug and alcohol use, as well as a detailed section about associations and relationships that could pose a threat to national security. The investigators will verify the information on the SF86 with a variety of sources including employers, landlords, former coworkers, neighbors and relatives. They will also check public records and law enforcement databases.

Once the SF86 is completed and the investigation is complete, an adjudicator will review all the data collected during the process to ensure that it meets the standards set by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence for granting a TS/SCI clearance or participating in a sensitive program. If there is any significant information that is identified, the investigator will report it to the hiring agency. It is common for investigators to spot patterns that suggest the applicant is attempting to conceal information or make strategic omissions from their SF86 answers. For this reason, it’s a good idea to provide as much accurate information as possible on the form. This will help speed up the process and reduce the chances that investigators will find something untoward in your background. Trying to hide anything from investigators is considered fraud and can result in denial of the clearance or termination of your position. The SF86 takes about an hour to complete and is available in both paper and electronic forms. Applicants who use the electronic version of the form can save time by not responding to any questions that don’t apply to them. This will prevent the computer from skipping over those questions. If you do this, however, you may end up providing investigators with less information than necessary, which can slow down the process.

National Agency Check with Law and Credit

For national security roles, the vetting is even more in-depth than for other federal jobs. It starts with the aforementioned Standard Forms, and it may involve searches of criminal records, credit checks, drug tests, and interviews with relatives, friends, coworkers, and other contacts. The investigation will also take into account information about the applicant’s financial history and a list of possible issues that can cause concern, such as mental illness, substance abuse, criminal conduct, and terrorist activities.

The investigator will also check to make sure the applicant is a U.S. citizen, and if not, the sponsoring agency will refer the candidate for additional vetting. This additional vetting can include more detailed national agency checks, fingerprint searches in the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Identification Division, and other files or indices as needed.

This additional vetting typically takes six to nine months, and sometimes longer. The candidate will also undergo a Single Scope Background Investigation, which is a government-wide investigation required of people who need access to Top Secret classified national security information. This entails a thorough review of the last seven years, including verification of citizenship and a search for all national agency records, plus checks on the person’s spouse or cohabitant and interviewing of selected references and former spouses.

The vetting process also includes the Minimum Background Investigation (MBI), which is designed for contractors working at Confidential and Secret national security levels. This investigation involves an NACI, a check of criminal records at the state level where the person lived and worked for at least five years, a face-to-face personal interview with the investigator, and inquiries of references. Other investigations are the Child Care NACI, which is an enhanced version of an NACI that is required for those in child care positions, and the SSBI Periodic Reinvestigation, which is a requirement for TS-SCI clearances. The SSBI-PR consists of the same personal investigative coverage of employments and residences as the original SSBI, and a check of the Treasury Department’s financial data base. In addition, the investigator will review all SSBI-PRs that the candidate has undergone in the past, and may request any new relevant information from the previous investigator. Depending on the results of the investigation, a final determination will be made. This determination will determine the type of clearance granted, which is categorized as Confidential, Secret, or Top Secret. The higher the clearance, the more damage the disclosure of the information could do to national security.