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Security clearance: why it takes so long for Foreign Service Officers

Updated: Mar 24, 2019

Joining the Foreign Service is a long process – it takes a good deal of studying, planning and waiting to pass all of the entry exams (FSOT, QEP, FSOA), and then you still have to get a security clearance, medical clearance and pass a suitability review.

For me, waiting for a TS security clearance took the longest by far. The period between registering and passing the Foreign Service entry exams was 7 months; as I'm writing this, I’ve been waiting to hear back about my TS security clearance for over 14 months (since I submitted my SF-86 in March 2017).

Ultimately, it took almost two years to get a security clearance. Read more about my timeline for the hiring process, from the day my TS clearance was initiated until the days I found out I was granted one 23 months later, in my more recent post What happens after passing the foreign service exams: my 738 days from FSOA to Register.

Now let’s talk about the security clearance process: Why does it take so long? What is the average amount of waiting time? Which factors are grounds for refusal?

Why FSOs need a clearance

In case you’re not familiar with the security clearance classification system, a “top secret security clearance” is what all Foreign Service Officers need in order to get hired. They need it to access sensitive personal and government information.

Top secret isn’t the “most” secret clearance there is, by the way. I don’t know the details, but there are several levels above that (although I think they are only necessary for specific jobs and are granted for limited amounts of time).

Also, having a top secret security clearance doesn’t mean you can look into whatever information you want; even when you have a TS clearance you should only access information that is directly relevant to your job – going outside of your area can quickly lead to clearance revocation (which pretty much means you’re fired).

Why does it take so long?

There are several reasons why the security clearance process takes a long time. Reportedly, 1.4 million people currently hold TS security clearances. New people are hired all the time, and when you add the fact that people have to be re-investigated every five years, you can begin to imagine the caseloads of the agencies involved.

TS investigations are very thorough. Investigators look into various aspects of your life; they check your finances, your police records, your family members, your friends, your schools, your job, and almost everything else that’s interesting about you.

If you lived abroad, part of the field investigation is tasked out to US embassies overseas. This typically adds a bunch of time to the clock.

Investigation phase

For the investigation phase, you are assigned to an investigations officer. This is a Diplomatic Security (DS) investigator (in my case a retired FBI agent) who digs up all the information about you that’s out there. Then the investigator sits down with you for an interview that takes anywhere between two hours and two days to get all the details needed to make a recommendation to the case manager and the adjudication officer.

The investigator will also interview your friends. That’s right – if you want a secret security clearance your friends have to talk about you to the FBI! The good news is that you actually get to pick which friends they interview, but don’t expect to be fooling anyone by hiding key contacts because the investigator will also ask around your neighborhood and figure out if they missed anyone, or anything, important.

Adjudication phase

For the adjudication phase, all of the information obtained during the investigation phase is reviewed to make a final determination.

It’s often said that the investigation part takes the longest, but that’s not always true. Investigations can go really fast (matter of weeks) or take a bit longer (several months) depending on the case. Adjudication, on the other hand, is very unpredictable.

Once the investigation phase is over, it’s possible that the case “sits on someone’s desk” for months, even years. This sounds like an exaggeration, but there are plenty of people reporting that this is currently happening to them (personally I’ve already been in adjudication far longer than in investigation). During this time, candidates don’t receive updates on their case.

It’s kind of intriguing why the adjudication phase takes so long. If the investigation is over, why would it take so long to make a determination? Some people (typically people who work as adjudication officers) claim that the adjudication process doesn’t take very long at all once you are actually in it, implying that cases that take a long time haven’t actually reached the adjudication phase yet. It may be that these cases are held back due to pending information requests, or because of a backlog.

Statistics and averages

It’s difficult to determine what the average waiting time is for first-time TS security clearances. There is an official standard and timeline the State Department has to comply with (something about a 90-day rule), but recent reports indicate that only a few percent of the cases actually meet that timeline.

To make matters worse, in July 2017 an OIG report came out that heavily criticized the State Department for not knowing the time it takes to process clearances.

One way to figure out what the real timeline is at the State Department is by looking at self-reported information. Lately, more and more people report timelines of well over a year. Someone recently mentioned that 18 months is the new average. On the other hand, there are still people who report waiting times of only a few months.

I've looked into the information that's out there and, based on 226 cases, came up with the chart below. The chart shows how long it took for people to get all of their clearances and be placed on the Register after they passed the FSOA. So these timelines include medical clearances and suitability reviews. However, the security clearance takes by far the longest for most people (the suitability review, as reported, typically takes only a few weeks, while the medical clearance can be done in the meantime).

Broadly speaking, you could say that about half of the cases took 6-12 months, which is what most people are told to expect. About a quarter of the cases took less than 6 months and another quarter took (well) over a year.

Looking at this chart, you could conclude that times have shortened significantly in 2017, but the data is misleading here. After all, people who took the FSOA in 2017 and do not have a clearance yet (like me!) are not represented in this sample. Almost all of the people who started the process somewhere in 2017 and have their clearances already are the ones for whom it took a year or less, since it's only June 2018 now.

Another way to find out information on timelines is by looking at overall government data, although by far the most is written about the Department of Defense since they issue more clearances than any other agency. DoD recently reported an average processing time of 530 days for TS clearances in the first quarter of 2018.

Foreign born and well traveled

There are several factors that determine the length of the security clearance process. It tends to take longer if you have traveled abroad a lot, or if you have a lot of foreign contacts. If you are foreign-born, it’s almost a guarantee that the clearance process takes longer than average.

EFMs (spouses of Foreign Service Officers) also have this problem when they apply for a TS security clearance; even if the only reason they traveled far and wide is because the US government told them so, they are still subjected to the same scrutiny as people who travel for other reasons.

The irony about all of this it is that having foreign contacts and experiences helps you pass the Foreign Service exams, but works against you getting a security clearance (fast).

Who gets rejected?

I knew the security clearance process was going to be lengthy when I applied. Still, it’s difficult not to worry during the long wait. There are several grounds for rejection, including a failure to be honest, financial issues, personal conduct issues, and foreign influence or preference.

People often wonder if their mistakes in the past were bad enough to be rejected. You never know how a slip-up is going to be viewed by DS; as a youthful mistake (not a reason for refusal) or as a sign of clear and consistent lack of judgment (reason for refusal).

Also, there may be issues in your past that you’re not aware of, or that weren’t really your fault. It’s hard to know how bad something will look on your record, and it gets worse if you didn’t even know about something you did wrong. After all, you might look like you’re lying or hiding things from the investigator, which is something you should definitely try to avoid.

For example, I had a financial issue I (almost) wasn’t aware of. I was overpaid a month salary by a federal government agency in 2013 and failed to return the money; I tried to return the money by sending several emails, but it didn’t get resolved. Eventually, I forgot all about it, and I didn’t keep any “proof” of my efforts to make it right. A few years later, the State Department sent me a letter saying I owed them money, but the letter never reached me. Then, the amount was deducted from my 2016 state tax return. It just so happened that I found out about all of this one week before I had the interview with my investigator (who found out about it by searching my record).

How many people are rejected?

I only know a couple of cases where people failed to obtain a TS security clearance. In one case, the person was born in a country that is, let’s say, not a good friend of the US. I heard that this doesn’t have to be a problem per se, but in this case it was. Perhaps the investigator had difficulty establishing what this person's family members were doing, which is bad – investigators must be able to rule out the risk that someone's close contacts are involved in anti-US activities.

There is a 2015 government report that discusses several federal government agencies and puts the percentage of denials and revocations for the State Department at a mere 0,1% (page 9). Between 2011 and 2014, reported denials were between 0,3% and 0,9%.

Since it was also reported that the State Department processed 63,000 secret and top security clearances between 2012 and 2016, which is on average 12,600 per year, that means 13-113 denials per year. It is possible to appeal a negative determination, which many people do.

Time heals everything?

Browsing through forums and talking to people who are involved in the process, I often hear that timing plays a major role in getting (or failing to get) a security clearance. If you made a mistake in the past, time will allow you to demonstrate that you have changed your ways and back it up with proof.

For example, if you used to smoke pot all the time in college, ten years of not smoking pot will probably be enough to demonstrate that you’re not a drug user anymore. Then again, you may have to work a lot harder than other people to prove that you’re not using drugs.

Sometimes people don’t even get through the entire security clearance process, and it seems that those numbers aren’t being reported. For example, when there are clear suitability issues from the start, the State Department doesn’t want to pay for a full investigation (which costs thousands of dollars) and simply notifies the person in question.

In other cases, candidates are “discouraged” from continuing to seek a security clearance. I don’t know how common this is, but I know someone who this happened to. This person traveled a lot and made some questionable decisions – usually not knowing they were wrong. When applying for a TS clearance this person was informally told "no", or "not now."

Better not to apply?

Another question that comes up frequently is whether it’s still a good idea to apply for a security clearance if you think there's a good chance you'll be denied. I’m not going to recommend anything since I have no special expertise in the matter, but the majority of people who reply to such questions (again, probably not experts) say that it doesn’t hurt to try.

By entering the process you will at least find out if and why your case is problematic. With this information in hand, you can try to take steps to resolve it. After a denial, people are allowed to enter the security clearance process again after a year (although in some cases you might be better off waiting longer). That said, it’s not really up to you if and when you’ll be re-investigated – you first need to get a job offer!

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