A security clearance is a status granted to individuals allowing them access to classified information, i.e., state secrets, or to restricted areas after completion of a thorough background check. The term "security clearance" is also sometimes used in private organizations that have a formal process to vet employees for access to sensitive information. A clearance by itself is normally not sufficient to gain access; the organization must determine that the cleared individual needs to know the information. No one is supposed to be granted access to classified information solely because of rank, position, or a security clearance.
Government classified information is governed by the Treasury Board Policy on Government Security, the Security of Information Act and Privacy Act. Only those that are deemed to be loyal and reliable, and have been cleared are allowed to access sensitive information.
Checks include basic demographic and criminal record checks for all levels, and, depending on an individual appointment's requirements, credit checks, loyalty, and field checks might be conducted by the RCMP and/or CSIS.
Clearance is granted, depending on types of appointment, by individual Federal government departments or agencies or by private company security officers. Those who have contracts with Public Works and Government Services Canada are bound by the Industrial Security Program, a sub-set of the GSP.
To access designated information, one must have at least reliability status (see Hierarchy below). Reliability checks and assessments are conditions of employment under the Public Service Employment Act, and, thus, all Government of Canada employees have at least reliability status screening completed prior to their appointment. However, Government employees by Order-in-council are not subjected to this policy.
Clearances at the reliability status, confidential, and secret levels are valid for 10 years, whereas top secret is valid for 5 years. However, departments are free to request their employees to undergo security screening any time for cause. Because security clearances are granted by individual departments instead of one central government agency, clearances are inactivated at the end of appointment or when an individual transfers out of the department. The individual concerned can then apply to reactivate and transfer the security clearance to his/her new position.
Four levels of personnel screening exist:
Individuals who need to have RS because of their job or access to federal government assets will be required to sign the Personnel Screening, Consent and Authorization Form (TBS/SCT 330-23e).
- Reliability Status (RS) - formerly known as enhanced reliability status (ERS)
- Reliability checks are done by verifying personal data, criminal records check, educational, and professional qualifications, data on previous employment and references. As well, a fingerprint check, and a credit check may be required.
- This level of clearance will grant the right to access designated documents with markings of Protected A, B & C information/assets on a need-to-know basis. It is mandatory for individuals when the duties or tasks of a position or contract necessitate access to protected information and assets, regardless of the duration of an assignment.
Individuals who require access to more sensitive information (or access to sensitive federal government sites and/or assets) because of their job will be required to sign the Security Clearance Form (TBS/SCT 330-60e). There are three basic levels of clearance:
- Confidential (Level I)
- In addition to the RS checks, foreign employments, immediate relatives, and marriages/common-law relationships must be declared and be screened.
- This level of clearance will grant the right to access designated and classified information up to Confidential level on a need-to-know basis. Department Heads have the discretion to allow for an individual to access Secret level information without higher level clearance on a case-to-case basis.
- Secret (Level II)
- Same as Confidential.
- This level of clearance will grant the right to access designated and classified information up to Secret level on a need-to-know basis. Department Heads have the discretion to allow for an individual to access Top Secret-level information without higher-level clearance on a case-to-case basis.
- Top Secret (Level III)
- In addition to the checks at the Secret level, foreign travels, assets, and character references must be given. Field check will also be conducted prior to granting the clearance.
- This level of clearance will grant the right to access all designated and classified information on a need-to-know basis.
An additional category called 'Site Access' exists not for access to information purposes but for those that require physical access to sites or facilities designated by CSIS as areas "reasonably be expected to be targeted by those who engage in activities constituting threats to the security of Canada". Designated areas include Government Houses, official residences of government officials, Parliament, nuclear facilities, airport restricted areas, maritime ports, and any large-scale events that are sponsored by the federal government (e.g., 2010 Winter Olympics). The checks conducted are similar to those of a Confidential clearance.
Prior to granting access to information, an individual who has been cleared must sign a Security Screening Certificate and Briefing Form (TBS/SCT 330-47), indicating their willingness to be bound by several Acts of Parliament during and after their appointment finishes. Anyone who has been given a security clearance and releases designated/classified information without legal authority is in breach of trust under section 18(2) of the Security of Information Act with a punishment up to 2 years in jail. Those who have access to Special Operational Information are held to a higher standard. The release of such information is punishable by law, under section 17(2) of the Security of Information Act, liable to imprisonment for life.
The Criminal Code of Canada, Section 748 (3) states that no person convicted of an offence under Section 121 (frauds on the Government), Section 124 (selling or purchasing office), or Section 418 (selling defective stores to Her Majesty), has, after that conviction, the capacity to contract with Her Majesty or to receive any benefits under a contract between Her Majesty and any other person or to hold office under Her Majesty unless a pardon has been granted. (This effectively prohibits granting of a Reliability Status to any such individual.) 
Clearance is checked at six levels, depending on the classification of materials that can be accessed — Baseline Personnel Security Standard (BPSS), Counter-Terrorist Check (CTC), Security Check (SC) and Developed Vetting (DV). Security Check allows an individual long-term unsupervised access to protectively-marked SECRET material, whilst for TOP SECRET Developed Vetting is required. All Officers and some specialist trades within the British Armed Forces are cleared to SC to enable them to carry out their jobs. Further to this, in the Royal Corps of Signals, all operators in special handling communications cells and SNCOs holding the appointment Foreman of Signals or Yeoman of Signals, and also certain appointments within the Intelligence Corps are DV cleared. Those with security clearance are commonly required to sign a statement to the effect that they agree to abide by the restrictions of the Official Secrets Act. This is popularly referred to as "signing the Official Secrets Act". Signing this has no effect on which actions are legal, as the act is a law, not a contract, and individuals are bound by it whether or not they have signed it. Signing it is intended more as a reminder to the person that they are under such obligations. To this end, it is common to sign this statement both before and after a period of employment that involves access to secrets.
After the United States entry into WWII, Britain changed its security classifications to match American classifications. Prior to the U.S.'s coming into the war, the classifications included the top classification: "Most Confidential". Documents were then shared with the U.S., when they entered the war. However, these British classifications were not understood in the U.S., and classified information appeared in the U.S. press. This spearheaded the uniformity in classification between the UK and the U.S.
A security clearance is granted to an individual and generally recognizes a maximum level of clearance. Exceptions include levels above compartmentalized access or when an individual is cleared for a certain type of data. The President of the United States may be given access to any government or military information that he requests if there is a proper "need to know", even if he would not otherwise be able to normally obtain a security clearance were he not the President. Having obtained a certain level security clearance does not mean that one automatically has access to or is given access to information cleared for that clearance level in the absence of a demonstrated "need to know". The "need-to-know" determination is made by a 'disclosure officer,' who may work in the office of origin of the information. The specified "need to know" must be germane to the prospective user's mission, or of necessity for the integrity of a specified security apparatus.
"Controlled Unclassified" does not represent a clearance designation, but rather a clearance level at which information distribution is controlled. Controlled Unclassified designates information that may be illegal to distribute. This information is available when needed by government employees, such as Department of Defense (DoD) employees, but the designation signifies that the information should not be redistributed to users not designated to use it on an operational basis. For example, the organization and processes of an information-technology system may be designated Controlled Unclassified to users for whom the operational details of the system are non-critical.
Also known as a "public trust" clearance, this is hierarchically the first security clearance to get, typically requiring a few weeks to a few months of investigation. A Confidential clearance requires a NACLC investigation which dates back 7 years on the subject's record and must be renewed (with another investigation) every 15 years. Applicants are required to complete federal Standard Form 85P.
A Secret clearance, also known as Collateral Secret or Ordinary Secret, requires a few months to a year to investigate, depending on the individual's background. Some instances wherein individuals would take longer than normal to be investigated are many past residences, having residences in foreign countries, having relatives outside the United States, or significant ties with non-US citizens. Unpaid bills as well as criminal charges will more than likely disqualify an applicant for approval. However, a bankruptcy will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis and is not an automatic disqualifier. Poor financial history is the number-one cause of rejection, and foreign activities and criminal record are also common causes for disqualification. A Secret clearance requires a NACLC, and a Credit investigation; it must also be re-investigated every 10 years. Investigative requirements for DoD clearances, which apply to most civilian contractor situations, are contained in the Personnel Security Program issuance known as DoD Regulation 5200.2-R, at part C3.4.2
Top Secret is a more stringent clearance. A Top Secret, or "TS", clearance, is often given as the result of a Single Scope Background Investigation, or SSBI. Top Secret clearances, in general, afford one access to data that affects national security, counterterrorism/counterintelligence, or other highly sensitive data. There are far fewer individuals with TS clearances than Secret clearances. A TS clearance can take as few as 3 to 6 months to obtain, but often it takes 6 to 18 months. The SSBI must be reinvestigated every 5 years. In order to receive TS clearance, all candidates must pass an oral interview.
As with TS clearances, Sensitive Compartmented Information (SCI) clearances are assigned only after one has been through the rigors of a Single Scope Background Investigation and a special adjudication process for evaluating the investigation. SCI access, however, is assigned only in "compartments". These compartments are necessarily separated from each other with respect to organization, so that an individual with access to one compartment will not necessarily have access to another. Each compartment may include its own additional special requirements and clearance process. An individual may be granted access to, or read into, a compartment for any period of time.
Top secret clearance might be required to access:
- Communications intelligence, a subset of SIGINT
- Design or stockpile information about nuclear weapons
- Nuclear targeting
Such compartmentalized clearances may be expressed as "John has a TS/SCI", whereby all clearance descriptors are spelled out verbally. For example, the U.S. National Security Agency once used specialized terms such as "Umbra", This classification is reported to be a compartment within the "Special Intelligence" compartment of SCI. The various NSA compartments have been simplified; all but the most sensitive compartments are marked "CCO", meaning "handle through COMINT channels only".
The U.S. Department of Defense establishes, separately from intelligence compartments, special access programs (SAP) when the vulnerability of specific information is considered exceptional and the normal criteria for determining eligibility for access applicable to information classified at the same level are not deemed sufficient to protect the information from unauthorized disclosure. The number of people cleared for access to such programs is typically kept low. Information about stealth technology, for example, often requires such access.
Area-specific clearances include:
- L clearance (Department of Energy)
- Q clearance (Department of Energy)
- Yankee White (working with the President and Vice President)
Jobs that require a clearance
Anyone with access to classified data requires a clearance at or higher than the level at which the data is classified. For this reason, security clearances are required for a wide range of jobs, from senior management to janitorial. According to a 2010 Washington Post article, 854,000 Americans had top-secret clearances; almost one-third of them worked for private companies, rather than for the U.S. government.
Jobs that require a security clearance can be found either as positions working directly for the federal government or as authorized federal contractors. Over time, more clearance jobs are being outsourced to contractors. Due to an overall shortage in security-cleared candidates and a long time frame to obtain the credentials for an uncleared worker, those with clearance are often paid more than their non-cleared equivalent counterparts. According to one 2010 estimate, "people with security clearances are in the top 10 percent of wage earners in the country".
Requirements for a clearance
The vetting process for a security clearance is usually undertaken only when someone is hired or transferred into a position that requires access to classified information. The employee is typically fingerprinted and asked to provide information about themselves. This becomes a starting point for an investigation into the candidate's suitability. The process has been streamlined and now requires the person who needs clearance to input the information online using E-qip. 5 days are allowed, during which data must be input. Having the older paper form can be helpful for collecting and organizing the information in advance. The information on an investigation and its status is stored in either JPAS or Scattered Castles.
Investigative work is usually at least one of the following types:
- National Agency Check with Local Agency Check and Credit Check (NACLC). An NACLC is required for a Secret, L, and CONFIDENTIAL access. (See: Background check)
- Single Scope Background Investigation (SSBI). An SSBI is required for Top Secret, Q, and SCI access, and involves agents contacting employers, coworkers and other individuals. Standard elements include checks of employment; education; organization affiliations; local agencies; where the subject has lived, worked, or gone to school; and interviews with persons who know the individual. The investigation may include an NACLC on the candidate’s spouse or cohabitant and any immediate family members who are U.S. citizens other than by birth or who are not U.S. citizens.
- Polygraph. Some agencies may require polygraph examinations. The most common examinations are Counter Intelligence (CI) and Full-Scope (Lifestyle) polygraphs. While a positive SSBI is sufficient for access to SCI-level information, polygraphs are routinely administered for "staff-like" access to particular agencies.
If issues of concern surface during any phase of security processing, coverage is expanded to resolve those issues. At lower levels, interim clearances may be issued to individuals who are presently under investigation, but who have passed some preliminary, automatic process. Such automatic processes include things such as credit checks, felony checks, and so on. An interim clearance may be denied (although the final clearance may still be granted) for having a large amount of debt, having a foreign spouse, for having admitted to seeing a doctor for a mental health condition, or for having admitted to other items of security concern (such as a criminal record or a history of drug use.)
Investigations conducted by one federal agency are no longer supposed to be duplicated by another federal agency when those investigations are current within 5 years and meet the scope and standards for the level of clearance required. The high-level clearance process can be lengthy, sometimes taking a year or more. The long time needed for new appointees to be cleared has been cited as hindering U.S. presidential transitions.
In the U.S., once the clearance is granted, the candidate is briefed on "the proper safeguarding of classified information and on the criminal, civil, and administrative sanctions that may be imposed on an individual who fails to protect classified information from unauthorized disclosure." He or she is also required to sign an approved non-disclosure agreement (e.g., form SF-312). High-level clearances are reviewed periodically and any "adverse information" reports received at any time can trigger a review. When a cleared person leaves their job, they are often "debriefed" — reminded of their ongoing obligations to protect the information they were allowed to see. According to NISPOM Chapter 3, newly cleared employees are required to receive an initial security briefing before having access to classified information. This training helps them understand the threat, risks to classified information, how to protect the classified information, security procedures and duties as they apply to their job. This training is followed up by refresher training that reinforces the initial security briefing.
Dual citizenship is associated with two categories of security concerns: foreign influence and foreign preference. Dual citizenship in itself is not the major problem in obtaining or retaining security clearance in the United States. If a security clearance applicant's dual citizenship is "based solely on parents' citizenship or birth in a foreign country", that can be a mitigating condition. However, exercising (taking advantage of the entitlements of) a non-U.S. citizenship can cause problems. For example, possession and/or use of a foreign passport is a condition disqualifying from security clearance and "... is not mitigated by reasons of personal convenience, safety, requirements of foreign law, or the identity of the foreign country" as is explicitly clarified in a Department of Defense policy memorandum which defines a guideline requiring that "... any clearance be denied or revoked unless the applicant surrenders the foreign passport or obtains official permission for its use from the appropriate agency of the United States Government". This guideline has been followed in administrative rulings by the United States Department of Defense (DoD) Defense Office of Hearings and Appeals (DOHA) office of Industrial Security Clearance Review (ISCR), which decides cases involving security clearances for Contractor personnel doing classified work for all DoD components. In one such case, an administrative judge ruled that it is not clearly consistent with U.S. national interest to grant a request for a security clearance to an applicant who was a dual national of the U.S. and Ireland.
Individuals who have had security clearances revoked
In the post World War II era there have been several highly publicized, and often controversial, cases of officials or scientists having their security clearances revoked, including:
The UN has a Security Clearance (SC) procedure and document for United Nations staff travelling to areas designated as security phase areas, with numbers ranging from one to five ("no-phase" areas are calm countries where no SC is required).
United Nations staff can apply for SC online, at the website of the Department for Safety and Security.
- Background check
- Compartmentalization (intelligence)
- List of U.S. security clearance terms
- Security Advisory Opinion
- Personnel Security Standard
- Guide to the Audit of Security - March 2004
- Security Policy-Manager's Handbook
- CSIS Security Screening
- Security of Information Act
- ISM Chapter 2 Part I
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- ISCR Case No. 02-21102
- (DoD) Factors Used for Determining Security Clearance Approval/Disapproval
- Defense Office of Hearings and Appeals decisions
- First person account of NSA interview and background investigation
- Security Clearance FAQs
- How to get clearance
- DoD Intelligence & Security Documents, directives and Instructions
- A Career in National Industrial Security Program
- DoD Security Clearances and Contracts Guidebook-What You Need to Know About Your Need to Know
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