What You Need to Know About Top-Secret Clearance

Top Secret clearance grants access to information that could cause exceptionally grave damage if leaked. Clearance holders can be employed by federal agencies or private companies working with government agencies.


Getting a security clearance requires extensive interviewing and paperwork. It also involves signing non-disclosure agreements and undergoing regular reinvestigations.

Background Investigations

The federal government conducts background investigations on people seeking a top-secret clearance and access to Sensitive Compartmented Information (SCI). If you’re considering applying for such a position, you should know that this can take 2+ years.

Once the sponsoring agency approves your application, you’ll have to complete Standard Form 86, which can be done online with the Electronic Questionnaires for Investigations Processing system (e-QIP). The SF-86 asks for exhaustive details about everywhere you’ve lived, worked or studied as well as personal contacts and financial information.

Investigators look at a wide range of issues to determine your trustworthiness, including your judgment, patriotism and character. A simple mistake, like forgetting to list a short-term residence on your SF-86 or not having an alma mater listed on your resume could cause delays and discrepancies that may disqualify you from consideration for a clearance.

The level of scrutiny increases as the level of clearance you’re seeking gets higher. Tier 3 and 4 investigators use a National Agency Check with Law and Credit that looks back five years, while candidates for Tier 5 clearances go through a Single Scope Background Investigation that goes back ten years. Clearance decisions are made by trained personnel security specialists known as adjudicators. They follow a set of rules and guidelines called the National Security Adjudicative Guidelines.

Non-Disclosure Agreements

While not required for all employees, non-disclosure agreements can help protect a company’s sensitive information from competitors and from unwanted snooping. NDAs are low-cost, easy to create legal documents that bind two or more parties to keep confidential information private. They typically require the disclosing party to disclose only on a need-to-know basis, refrain from using information for commercial purposes and not share the information with others. They also set out the consequences for violating confidentiality and include specific clauses about what does not constitute confidential information.

While the basic form of an NDA is simple, the fine print can be tricky. One of the most important clauses specifies that the disclosing party must tell the receiving party in writing as soon as possible if it intends to divulge confidential information to others. This is to ensure that the recipient has adequate opportunity to protect its interest in confidential information and to take steps to avoid disclosure if it can.

Other crucial clauses establish whether the information is classified, what it is intended to be used for and how long the NDA should last. NDAs can also contain specific exclusions, such as those related to public safety or government transparency. They can also stipulate that the NDA cannot be used to prevent the release of information in the public interest, such as if there is evidence of illegal activity or for reasons related to national security.


Having a Top Secret clearance can significantly boost a professional’s career in the InfoSec and Cybersecurity industries. Clearance holders can work on high-level projects and contribute to national security efforts while also getting access to specialized training and certifications.

To obtain a top-secret clearance, you must undergo an extensive background investigation that covers your family members, friends, acquaintances and previous employers. The investigators will dig into your finances and search for any criminal activity. They will also interview people that you have worked with, such as professors and neighbors.

Once you have a cleared position, you will be required to sign a non-disclosure agreement and attend a briefing called SF-312. This provides an in-depth overview of classified information and how to protect it. Clearance holders must also adhere to strict security protocols and follow the “need-to-know” principle.

Most people that hold a TS clearance obtained it by working in a government job that requires a clearance, or by applying to a clearance position and passing the investigation. The process can take between 6 to 9 months, so it’s important to prepare for it ahead of time. Whether you’re working for the federal government or a defense contractor, if you have the right skills, you can land a job that will help you move up to this level of clearance.


When a person fills a position in the federal government that requires a security clearance, investigators from OPM or another contractor conduct background investigations. These investigations consider information from an individual’s SF-86 form and federal adjudicative guidelines for clearance determinations. Once a clearance has been granted, the individual must go through periodic reinvestigations to maintain his or her access to classified national security information.

During these reinvestigations, investigators look at everything listed on the SF-86 as well as anything that may have developed since the last investigation. It’s important to be open and honest with investigators during these meetings. They might find something that can’t be mitigated, and it could lead to a denial of your clearance or even termination from your job.

The Defense Department has a continuous evaluation program that’s designed to eventually replace periodic reinvestigations. The program allows cleared DOD service members, civilians and contractors to enroll in the program if they complete an SF-86 and cooperate with the investigation. It will eventually cover everyone who needs access to national security information — including those with Secret or lower clearances. The Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency has enrolled about 3.6 million people in the program. Processing times have gone up and down over the years, but it appears that they are starting to get back down to pre-2015 levels.