Top-Secret job clearance: How the government fills intelligence jobs

Video
Eric Mendel, sales manager for TechExpoUSA, discusses the demand for people with top-secret clearances at the TechExpo Top Secret in Reston.
Dana Hedgpeth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 25, 2010; 12:00 PM

Since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, there has been a major increase in government jobs and contractor positions that require secret clearances, from janitors at spy agencies to specialized computer technicians and software developers. A Washington Post series called Top Secret America examined the buildup in the country's national security and found that 854,000 Americans have top-secret clearances, nearly a third of whom work for private contractors.

Washington Post staff writer Dana Hedgpeth was online Wednesday, Aug. 25, at Noon ET to discuss how the government recruits employees for "top- secret" jobs in the intelligence community.

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Dana Hedgpeth: I recently spent some time at two job fairs - one in Reston, the other near BWI -- run by TECHEXPO Top Secret to get a sense of what is the job scene like for those with top secret clearances and to explore what's a clearance worth in today's job market.

Among the more interesting findings in my story that's online, typically -- the higher the clearance, the higher the pay. Even janitors who take out the trash at spy agencies to specialized signals analysts require clearances these days and those with skills are in demand.

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Arlington, Va.: The one thing no one points out about getting a security clearance is the fact contractors have more rights than DOD military and civilian employees do. DOD contractors are under one executive order and DOD military and civilian members are under a different executive order. Contractors when DOD proposes to deny or evoke their security clearance can either have a hearing or a decision before a administrative judge. The government's side is presented by a attorney from the DOD Office of the Secretary of Defense General Counsel. They have to follow the federal rules of evidence. The contractor appeal board, unlike the ones for DOD military and civilian employees, usually doesn't consider new evidence and acts as Appeal Court and rules on if the hearing followed the rules. With contractors the government can appeal the decision of the administrative judge to grant the clearance. In the rest of DOD this does not happen.

In the rest of DOD a personnel security specialist after a multi-level review makes the decision. The decision is fairer and based on National Security and not legal precedence.

Deny a contractor's clearance takes 9 mos to a year or longer before the process is completed. DOD civilians and military the process is completed in 120 days.

The cost of denying or revoking a DOD contractor's security clearance is significantly higher. Both the judge and DOD department counsel travel to the contractor's location. Typically the administrative judge makes significantly more than the personnel security specialists.

Why should contractors have more rights than DOD employees and the military? If anything it should be the same or they should have less rights. One way to cut costs would be to put all DOD contractors and DOD military and civilians under the same Executive Order and do away with hearings, Federal rules of evidence, the administrative judges and DOD lawyers.

Dana Hedgpeth: You raise some interesting points here about how Pentagon employees versus contractors are dealt with under federal regulations. There is what I call the "great debate" over the costs between contractors and government employees. It is not always a clear cut answer. It is one that we'll keep exploring in Top Secret America and please send us your thoughts and ideas.

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Anonymous: How long do security clearances last after retirement? I retired from the Foreign Service in 2003, and returned as a contract employee for several months (as I recall, I had to have my clearance updated). Would I have any advantage at all applying for a job requiring T.S. clearance now? I thought my clearance was "Secret," and don't recall there even being a T.S. level.

Dana Hedgpeth: Good question. The length of time that a clearance is good for varies, depending on the level. Some clearances last for five years, others for 10.

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Norfolk, Va.: Cn i get a top-secret clearance before applying for jobs that require it?

Dana Hedgpeth: Clearances are rare things. You can't raise your hand and say, "I want a top secret clearance." You have to be in a position that would require you to get one, then a contractor would sponsor you through the process. Or if you're working for the military you can apply for work that would require you to then get a clearance. But it is not an automatic guarantee to get one. So bottom line: Best to have the clearance, then find the job you want.

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Washington, D.C.: What kinds of things disqualify you for a top-secret clearance?

Dana Hedgpeth: Wow - that's a good one and the list can vary. But the big ones are past behavior, including drug and alcohol abuse, family relationships and knowingly participating in sabotage against the U.S. There's a lot online that answers this question and I've heard people with top secret clearances say that the biggest thing is to BE HONEST up front with the investigators. If you have something in your past, tell them first and foremost before they find out from talking to your neighbors.

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washingtonpost.com: Fairs help job-seekers with security clearances connect with intelligence firms (Post, Aug. 24)

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Pentagon: Current back logs for contractors needing a collateral TS from time investigative paperwork is sent to the time clearance shows up in database about 120 days. That is for clean cases with no issues.

Delinquent accounts, foreclosures, arrests, DUIs, drug use, non U.S. citizen relatives you are looking at 120 days to over a year.

Also remember if the contractor's SCI eligibility is denied the collateral clearance must still go through the denial revocation process. For DOD military and civilians the denial/revocation of SCI and the denial/revocation of the collateral clearance is done at the same time. Different EOs

Dana Hedgpeth: This is a good point that's being made here. There are several reasons clearances took a long time. It depends on the investigator and the applicant.

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Reston, Va.: Did you think the people there were recently retired? Or people who lost their contract jobs? What is your sense of how desperate people seemed for jobs in the TS world?

Dana Hedgpeth: There was a mix of all that -- some were active military personnel who were looking to retire soon and checking out their options. Others were retired -- either from the military or as contractors -- and were looking to get back into the workforce. Some were needing a new job because the contract they were currently working on was coming to an end. Desperate? Only a handful seemed desperate, I'd say.

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Washington, D.C.: So an average person just doesn't out right apply for security clearance on his/her own? If the place where you're applying requires it, then it's up to them to begin the process? Is this right?

Dana Hedgpeth: That's right. You can't just raise your hand and say, "I want a clearance." Yes, the place you're working for has to sponsor you for the clearance. And then the fun begins.

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Clifton, Va. : Best way to get clearance other then enlisting or joining the reserves is to find a admin job with contractor with high turnover and use that company to sponsor you for the clearance.

That's how my stepdaughter got her secret clearance.

Dana Hedgpeth: Very good point here and that's what I've heard of plenty of people doing. Get your foot in the door at a big company that can afford to keep you on doing unclassified work, then when something in the classified area opens, get into that. While you're working and getting paid, your company could sponsor your top secret clearance.

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Manassas, Va.: Good afternoon! Great topic. Two things...Please comment on the practice of companies doing everything they can to bring in people with existing TS clearances, versus paying to obtain a TS for their existing employees. If there's such a shortage, why don't companies just pay for their employees to get a TS? Secondly, my husband, who is unemployed, received an interim TS clearance from his previous company. Will having an interim TS help my husband in his job search? Will those companies searching for TS employees consider someone with an interim clearance?

Dana Hedgpeth: Hmm, interim top secret clearances -- I'm not sure of the rules on those. I would imagine that it depends on the company and his skills. It is cheaper -- in both time and money -- for a company to hire someone who already has a clearance because they can put them to work right away.

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Arlington, Va.: In DOD you have to have a new investigation and adjudication of your new case if you have had a 24 mo. break in service.

So if you retired from OD as a military member or DOD civilian your clearance and investigation is good for 24 mos.

TS and TS/SCI need new periodic reinvestigations every five years.

Secret every 10 years give or take.

Not sure about ODS but would say the rules ares similar.

Dana Hedgpeth: There you go -- someone seems to know about the details of how long clearances last.

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New York: How about exploring this issue from a gender point of view? You mention in the article that most of the applicants at the job fair were men. This makes sense since so many people with clearances are coming from the military. But what about the broader implications of having so few women holding these special security clearances? Are women actively recruited or encouraged to apply for positions?

Dana Hedgpeth: I'm not sure if companies or the military are actively recruiting women for top secret clearance work. I think they're looking for skills first.

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Chevy Chase, Md.: If we assume that contractors that do government work are only hiring former government employees because of their active security clearances, what are the potential harms in that practice?

Dana Hedgpeth: You raise an question that is a good debate to have. There is certainly something to be said, in some ways, for former government workers going to work for private contractors. They have experience. But some do see a concern with that crossover. It depends on what side of the fence you're on, I suppose.

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Arlington, Va.: The standards are the same for Top Secret/SCi, Top Secret and Secret. The same adjudication guidelines are used.

SCI only differs in how non U.S. citizens family members are handled.

Adjudication guidelines are available online: Defense Security Service

Dana Hedgpeth: Thanks for the insights.

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Severna Park, Md.: This may be a comment better suited for a different chat, but I think the issue is not that 1/3 of those people with clearances are contractors, but that we are employing close to one million people with clearances. One million people? Seriously? And if you say anything about that, the response you get is -- every one of them is necessary to combat the threat of terrorism. Geez.

Dana Hedgpeth: One does wonder about the number of people with clearances. It does seem pretty high. And some experts say that the government has gone too far in issuing too many clearances, but others say it is necessary. It's a tough one to say exactly what is the right number.

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Clearance: How do you know what level you have?

I had a Secret clearance on the Hill. Now I work for a federal agency that required I have a security clearance, but no one has ever told me what my rating is here...all they said was that I had passed.

Dana Hedgpeth: I've heard people have this issue and honestly I'm not sure why it happens or what it means. Anyone know anything about it? Thanks.

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Reston, Va.: If someone holds a TS clearance for a task order and when the tasking is completed, loses his job; then will he be able to list and explain that job on his resume?

What if, over time, things become classified that were not classified during the project? Will he be made aware of the change so he can avoid putting things on his resume that have become classified?

Dana Hedgpeth: My understanding of clearances is that you don't lose your clearance when a task order or contract ends. It follows you. On the second part, yes I do think he would know if things go from classified to nonclassified.

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Clearances: I have seen companies stating that one needs a clearance to apply and they also hire H1-Bs. They will only hire Americans if they have a clearance and non-cleared work is done by the H1-Bs. Isn't this discrimination?

Dana Hedgpeth: Tough to say straight out if this is discrimination without knowing the details of the company and what the job is and what they skill level is that they want. You do have to be a U.S. citizen to get some clearances, I believe. Double check the official sources that are available online to be sure, best advice I can give you.

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Manassas, Va. (why don't companies pay for clearances): Hi -- Re your comment that companies don't want to pay in terms of time and money to obtain TSs for their existing employees, isn't there a point where there are simply not enough cleared people to fill the jobs? In fact, I think that's exactly what's happened. Someone is going to have to bite the bullet and sponsor more people to obtain TSs.

Dana Hedgpeth: Yes, you're right at some point companies do have to pay for people to get clearances if they can't find enough of them. But often there's enough turnover of people with clearances where they can find someone. It is not uncommon for companies to sponsor someone though.

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washingtonpost.com: Fairs help job-seekers with security clearances connect with intelligence firms (Post, Aug. 24)

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Bethesda, Md.: It's not discrimination, it's a job requirement. If you can't get or don't have a requirement, then you won't be hired.

Dana Hedgpeth: Well there you go.

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Arlington, Va.: For the person asking about his clearance level -- his FSO or SSO should be able to answer his questions. If he doesn't have one, he probably does not have a clerance, but has just passed background check.

Dana Hedgpeth: Right, I think it is pretty common for someone to "pass" the background check but then have to go through another round of processes for the actual clearance to be issued, and that can depend on the levels.

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Dana Hedgpeth: Thank you all for reading the Post and Top Secret America and participating in the chat. Send interesting ideas, tips and construction criticisms to me at -- hedgpethd@washpost.com

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Fairfax, Va.: I recently held a DOE Q clearance which allowed me access up to the SRD level. How would that transfer over to TS and S clearances? Would I be eligible to attend these fairs even though my clearance was terminated this month due to me moving out here for school?

Dana Hedgpeth: Last question we'll take -- Sure you can attend job fairs if the clearance level is active.

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