A Federal Top-Secret Club That’s Not Very Secret or Federal

Photograph by Sean Ellis/Getty Images

Updated to add information on private-sector hiring of workers with security clearance from Clearancejobs.com’s Evan Lesser.

Getting top-secret clearance from the U.S. government can take as long as two years and require spotless testimonies from neighbors and ex-spouses, as well as help from a high credit score and low booze intake. Still, the highest echelon of Uncle Sam’s three security levels is not as tight a fraternity as one might think. As of October 2012, some 1.7 million Americans had either top-secret clearance or the necessary approval for it, including 766,000 people who aren’t counted as employees of the federal government, according to an annual report (PDF) by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

Counted among the ranks of private-sector workers with top-secret privileges is Edward Snowden, the 29-year-old employee of defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton who on Sunday identified himself as the source of leaks documenting the National Security Agency’s ultra-secretive surveillance efforts involving U.S. telecom and Internet companies. Nearly 12,000 Booz Allen staffers—or 49 percent of the company’s workforce—have top-secret status, according to a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission last year.

Evan Lesser, managing director of recruiting platform Clearancejobs.com, said big tech firms like Amazon, Google and Dell also have relatively high numbers of workers with top-secret status, as do colleges and universities working on federal research projects. Younger candidates like Snowden typically get top-secret status more easily than older workers because they have relatively little baggage. “They often don’t have extensive foreign travel experience and their financial history is going to be very limited,” Lesser told Businessweek.

It turns out much of the work investigating personnel of contractors seeking security clearance is done by—you guessed it—other private contractors. From 2007 to 2011, the federal Office of Personnel Management recorded $4.7 billion in background-check expenses, and slightly more than half of that money went to outside contractors (mostly people in the field doing shoe-leather work). There were 1.1 million top-secret background checks in that four-year span—roughly 220,000 a year. Only 2.5 percent of applications end in failure, though many of them are withdrawn before they’re rejected, says William Henderson, a former federal clearance investigator who now has a business helping people pass and appeal background tests.

So what’s involved in getting high clearance? Applicants start with a 127-page questionnaire (PDF), which is like a standard job application on steroids. The questions range from the relatively normal—any real estate holdings in a foreign country?—to direct inquires about about crack cocaine use. By the time applicants get to page 120, they’ll find this query: “Have you EVER knowingly engaged in any acts of terrorism?” (Seems like a “yes” to that one might be a nonstarter.)

From there, government investigators conduct at least one in-person interview with the applicants, as well as interviews with both close and distant personal contacts going as far back as seven years. At the same time, security-clearance computers crunch through tax, court, and police records, checking past addresses, credit histories, divorce proceedings, and criminal and civil charges, among other things.

The government ultimately bases its assessment on 13 guidelines, including a measure of the individual’s “allegiance to the U.S.,” susceptibility to “foreign influence,” sexual behavior, and alcohol consumption. The most important factors, according to the government, are “honesty, candor, and thoroughness.”

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