Past transgressions don’t necessarily spell doom for clearances


Career consultant Derrick Dortch has reassuring words for security clearance applicants who are worried about being approved:

“No one is perfect,” he said in a recent interview. “All of us have made mistakes and have blemishes in our backgrounds. So don’t assume that any mistakes you may have made in the past would necessarily doom your application for a security clearance.”

A variety of factors, including the particular clearance policies of your target agency, would likely influence the importance of your mistakes or liabilities, said Dortch, who is president of the Diversa Group, a career consulting firm focused on federal jobs.

For example, the FBI considers marijuana use within the previous three years, or use of other illegal drugs within the previous 10 years, to be automatic deal-busters. By contrast, the CIA only requires applicants to have refrained from using illegal drugs within the previous 12 months — but does evaluate illegal drug use prior to the previous 12 months.

Dortch also said that, in many cases, you may mitigate liabilities in two ways: accountability and time. This means that your liabilities might not be held against you if you have assumed accountability and responsibility for them and you have already corrected them, or are following a plan to correct them; or sufficient time has passed since your transgressions occurred without repeating them.

Some examples of how such mitigation might work:

• Suppose you’re applying for a CIA clearance, and the last time you abused drugs was two years ago. Because the CIA does not consider drug use that occurred more than one year ago to be an automatic deal-buster, you might be able to mitigate concerns about your past drug use by explaining to investigators that you only used drugs infrequently in college and, since graduating, you completely stopped using drugs.

You would thereby show that your drug use would be unlikely to recur and should not cast doubt on your reliability, trustworthiness or good judgment.

• Suppose you used to be a problem drinker. You might be able to mitigate concerns about your drinking by proving to investigators that you successfully completed a treatment program and received a favorable prognosis by a qualified medical professional or a licensed clinical social worker and have, since completing the program, lived an alcohol-free life and changed your friends and other relevant lifestyle habits accordingly.

• Suppose you were once treated for depression. You might be able to mitigate concerns about your mental health by explaining, with corroboration from your psychologist or psychiatrist, that your depression was an understandable response to the death of a loved one, a divorce or other traumatic event, and by proving that your treatment led to your successful recovery without relapses.

• Suppose you have or have had financial problems, such as a bankruptcy, outstanding debts or outstanding loan payments. You might be able to mitigate concerns about your financial status by showing evidence of some combination of the following: The underlying conditions that caused your financial problems were largely beyond your control because of loss of employment or an unexpected medical emergency, for example; you have conquered the conditions that caused your financial problems; you have taken responsibility for your financial problems by getting counseling from a certified credit counselor; you have or are currently following a payment plan that will eliminate your debts and return you to good standing; or you have reason to dispute the legitimacy of the past-due debt at issue, and you provide evidence that you have taken actions to resolve the issue.

Dortch warns, however, that even small debts, including student loans and mortgage loans, may doom security investigations for applicants who have not taken steps to deal with them.


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  1. Adjudicators look at the Whole Person Concept. You’re expected to make errors in your life. They look at the severity of the issue, recency, your willingness to correct the issue, etc. Don’t be intimidated by the security clearance process. Just make sure you are prepared before completing or submitting a security questionnaire (SF85, SF85P, SF86). Financial Considerations is the #1 deal breaker for those seeking security clearances.

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