What is the Process of obtaining a security clearance?

levels of government clearance , secret clearance process, security clearance jobs

After significant leaks of classified information in recent years, such as E. Snowden or C. Manning, the way the security clearance works is being reevaluated. Everybody agrees that the security clearance process needs to be reformed, since the framework was established at the beginning of the Cold War era in the 1950s with National Security Act. How likely is it that the security clearance process changes anytime soon? When and how could this change take place?

Purpose of The Security Clearance 

The National Background Investigations Bureau (NBIB), housed at the Office of Personnel Management, is responsible for over 100 federal agencies and its background investigations. It was established in October 2016 with the goal of modernizing and improving the ways in which  the federal government “conducts and delivers high-quality background investigations”.

The  purpose of a security clearance is to evaluate person’s character, loyalty, trustworthiness, reputation, and overall fitness to work for federal government before granting access to classified information. These background investigations costs billion of dollars annually. In 2012 alone, the Department of Defense paid the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) for background investigation $753 million, $252 million for contractors.

But not all government positions require security clearances. Security clearances have different levels of trust. There is an OPM-designed tool to asses the level of security clearances each civilian position requires and how to decide about the sensitivity levels. The basic levels of security clearance are Top Secret, Secret and Confidential.


One of the biggest issues are delays in federal background investigations. With a 50 year- old security background framework, the NBIB is unable to keep up with high demand. These prolonged waits for receiving security clearances are costing the government a lot of money. Currently there are more than 700,000 applicants, employees and contractors still waiting, creating a huge backlog. This further creates problems filling positions with qualified employees with an applicable level of required clearance.

Early this year, the processing times for a Top Secret clearance took over 500 days, while Secret clearance averaged at 262 days. On top of that, all current federal employees have to be reinvestigated after certain time. This reinvestigation normally occurs every 5 years for those with Top Secret level clearance and every 10 years for a Secret level clearance.

However, making this process faster, this could “potentially compromise the security of programs for which clearances were granted in the first place”. Overall, it is not likely the structure of the security clearance process will principally change in the near future. Reorganizing the whole bureaucratic system is a tremendous challenge if a successful and fast clearance process is to be achieved.


For more information on Security Clearances check out our series where our experts cover the in’s and outs of obtaining and working with security clearances.