What Happens After Obtaining a Top Secret Clearance?

A Top Secret clearance opens up job opportunities in the cybersecurity and intelligence industries. Clearance holders follow strict security protocols and adhere to the “need-to-know” principle, accessing information only as required for their duties.


The process for obtaining an SSBI includes multiple checks and interviews with people who know the applicant. The most common disqualifying issues in SSBI cases are financial considerations and criminal conduct.

Background Investigation

People who need to have access to classified national security information, or NSI, must undergo a background investigation. This involves a deep look into your character, trustworthiness and reliability. It determines if you can handle the responsibilities of your position with the Department of Defense and its agencies, which includes federal law enforcement, diplomacy and military. People working for private companies with government contracts and for non-profit or research organizations with federal funding also must undergo the background investigation process.

The first step is the e-QIP, an online questionnaire that contains information like your name, address, employment history and family connections. The investigation itself can take anywhere from five to 10 years and involves agents contacting your employers, schools, organization affiliations and other contacts. The standard 1811 clearance for Top Secret level access uses a single scope background investigation that goes back five years, while SSBIs for Q and SCI use an expanded inquiry with a ten-year time frame.

The Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency (DCSA) compiles the information and conducts record searches with law enforcement, courts and credit reporting agencies to find any derogatory information. An adjudicator then reviews all the information and compares it against 13 guidelines set by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Financial considerations have been the most common problem, but other issues have included drug involvement and criminal conduct.


Obtaining a clearance can open doors to lucrative jobs that require high levels of trust. However, the vetting process can be intimidating for many candidates. Understanding what will happen can make the process smoother for you.

The personal interview is a key part of the security clearance investigation. It typically involves a one-on-one conversation between you and the investigator. It may last a few hours or longer, depending on the case. The investigator will ask questions about the information you provided on your form SF86 and additional information they’ve reviewed about you from your past. They’ll also verify information with acquaintances, including former neighbors and coworkers.

In general, investigators are trying to determine whether you are honest and trustworthy in all aspects of your life. For example, a single late payment or speeding ticket won’t disqualify you, but a serious gambling habit or extensive drug use could raise concerns about your reliability and patriotism.

The interview also includes a polygraph examination, which measures changes in your blood pressure, skin conductivity, and respiration to see if you’re lying during the questioning. A polygraph is required for top-secret positions at most of the major U.S. intelligence agencies. The interview is voluntary, but refusing to answer any legitimate question can result in a clearance denial. The vetting process can seem intrusive and long, but it’s worth the effort for those who want to work for the government or private sector in sensitive roles that can mean significant paychecks and opportunities for promotion.

Credit and Criminal History Checks

The investigation for Top Secret clearance begins only when a federal agency requests one, based on the requirements of a specific position. The investigation is not initiated by you – it’s not a meritocracy, and the higher the security level, the more intensive the vetting.

The process involves completing Standard Form 86, the “Questionnaire for National Security Positions.” This is done online using the U.S. government’s Electronic Questionnaires for Investigations Processing, or e-QIP system. The form asks for exhaustive details about every place you’ve lived, worked and studied, as well as people you’ve known. Then investigators verify and examine all the information in detail, interviewing neighbors, relatives and other references to check the facts. They’ll also conduct a polygraph test, which measures changes in an applicant’s blood pressure, heart rate and skin conductivity that might indicate he or she is trying to hide something.

The investigator will submit the results of all this work to an adjudicator who decides whether you’ll receive a clearance. Each agency has its own process, but most follow the National Security Adjudicative Guidelines. The adjudicator looks at thirteen factors, including allegiance to the United States, honesty and integrity, moral character, trustworthiness, criminal and disciplinary record, mental health, financial issues, association with foreign nationals and more. This evaluation determines who gets a Top Secret clearance and who doesn’t.

Reliability Status

Only top secret cleared personnel have access to classified national security information and assets. This clearance level is granted only after passing standard checks, a field check, interview, and Resolution of Doubt interviews. A Reliability Status is required before anyone can be cleared to work on a project with protected information, assets or work sites and is valid for 10 years.

To obtain a Reliability Status, the department you are working for will submit a security screening request to Public Services and Procurement Canada’s Contract Security Program (CSP) for review by the company security officer or alternate CSO. This review includes a criminal records, foreign travel, credit checks and other data gathered in the initial security screening process.

The CSP will also conduct a security questionnaire and interview. A Reliability Status may be granted if the results of the background investigation and Resolution of Doubt interview are positive. A Reliability Status must be held for ten years, and must be reinvestigated to ensure continued eligibility.

Prior to the implementation of CE, a PR was required every five years for people with Confidential and Secret clearances or DOE “L” access authorizations who occupy non-critical sensitive positions, as well as those with Top Secret clearances and DOE “Q” access authorizations or who have SCI access or some other SAP access. Today, a PR is only necessary when the SF86 surface new potentially disqualifying information or when CE detects unfavorable changes in your background.