How Security Clearance Works


Nations need to keep secrets. As much as we may want an open and transparent government (and this is critical to a free society), there are other nations in the world that are all competing against each other. Because of this basic reality, some information must remain private in the interests of national security. But who decides what is classified and who may view this material? In the past few weeks, members of the president’s family have received significant attention regarding their security clearances. In particular, the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and the president’s daughter Ivanka Trump. Recent reports show that nearly everyone involved in the clearance granting process raised major concerns about granting classified access to these two. This includes objections raised by former White House Counsel Don McGahn and former Chief of Staff John Kelly. Such a move is extremely rare, even for unorthodox presidencies like the current one. This week, we’ll take a look at the security clearance process and why it is so difficult to obtain a Top Secret clearance.

First, the obvious question: What is a security clearance? Most governments use a system of classification to control access to sensitive information. The United States is no exception. What is or is not classified involves a wide range of information. This is not just facts, but includes confidential sources of facts (like spies and informants) and the methods used to obtain that information (like data collection programs).

There are essentially four main types of security clearance. Each one being harder to obtain than the last and each needing to be renewed after a set period of time. There is Confidential, Secret, Top Secret, and Sensitive Compartmented Information (SCI). SCI is particularly tricky to obtain since it involves the most critical information that is "compartmentalized.” This is a process where no one person has all of the information and methods at their disposal, which helps prevent rouge actors from leaking everything or having the information extracted from a captured asset. Typically, you would need TS-SCI clearance to get most higher level jobs in government, contractors, and in the intelligence agencies. There is also a sort of as-needed “code word” clearance, where only individuals who know a specific code word are allowed access to the information. Each agency grants classification based on their own information (CIA gives clearance for their stuff, NSA for theirs), which again helps prevent the entire nation’s secrets from being accessed through a single means.

Sorry Chuck fans, there is no giant computer with all of America’s secrets on it.

Sorry Chuck fans, there is no giant computer with all of America’s secrets on it.

How to get you a clearance? You’ll need to fill out a form called an SF-86. In it, you basically list all of the places you have ever lived and almost every person you have interacted with. Most clearance holders will tell you it is a painstaking process. They specifically look for information regarding character traits, foreign contacts, unsavory allegiances/ideologies, or information/assets that could be used against you for leverage or blackmail. It’s a long process that is usually contracted out to companies by the government. It often also involves a polygraph test and the entire process is repeated every five years at the highest level of clearance. Usually, this process catches most of the people who should obvious not be trusted with the nation’s secrets (such as people who are convicted criminals, foreign spies, or really bad liars). But of course, no system is perfect, and sometimes people obtain their clearance only to disclose secrets later (such as the cases of Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning). Like most agencies and processes in the government bureaucracy, the process is nonpartisan. Otherwise, no work could ever get done if only Democrats or Republicans could get clearance every four years.

So how did Jared and Ivanka get their clearances? The contractors/agencies will make their recommendations based on whether or not they think a person would be a national security risk if they had access to classified material. However, the president is the ultimate authority on classified material. Most decisions about what is or is not classified are made by offices within the intelligence agencies. But in reality, the president could decide to classify or declassify nearly anything for any reason or no reason at all. However, courts could rule against extreme over-classification if a compelling reason was found. Additionally, he or she also has the final authority on who has access to this information. So while it’s true that Jared and Ivanka gaining clearance is not technically a violation of anything, it may be in poor judgement if they were determined to be at risk of jeopardizing national security. It appears that such a judgement was made by multiple groups of people at nearly every level in the clearance process. In particular, the officials in charge of their clearance applications cited concerns about their financial dealings and the likelihood of foreign influence upon them.


Why is this potentially a big deal? Most unauthorized disclosures of classified information are done because of one of a few reasons.

1) Changing loyalties: a spy betrays his or her country because he or she believes another nation is more worthy or believes information must be made public.

2) Avoidance of harm: intimidation, blackmail…

3) Personal gain: selling state secrets for cash.

4) Accidental disclosures: Top diplomats and spies are very good at convincing people to accidentally tell them things.

In Jared’s case, there appears to be significant concern of financial problems and potentially problematic personal relationships with key foreign figures that have raised giant red flags in the clearance process. When someone discloses or sells American secrets to another country, it can have major consequences for national security. The Rosenbergs gave America’s nuclear secrets to the Soviets, helping to bring about the Cold War. Snowden’s disclosures about NSA hacking tools allowed other nations to hack parts of our infrastructure and made America unable to fight back. Manning’s leak of classified Iraq war documents risked the lives of Iraqi informants and their families. All of this makes it much harder for the military and the intelligence community to do their job of protecting the homeland and furthering American interests. This is why the security clearance process is so critical to national security, and why it must remain a nonpartisan process free of inappropriate influence or nepotism.