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RESPONDING TO A REVIEW
You've just found out your clearance is under review and could be suspended. Now what?
Typically, you'll get a "Letter of Intent" that your clearance is in jeopardy along with a "Statement of Reasons" outlining why. Under Pentagon rules, you have the right to fight for your clearance, but you must take action quickly. Typically, you have only 30 days to respond to allegations in writing.
Officials break down potential clearance killers into 13 categories ranging from allegiance to the U.S. and foreign influence to sexual behavior and misuse of government computer systems. Look up the Adjudicative Desk Reference on the Defense Human Resources Activity website for specifics on each category as well as details on what factors could work in your favor.
In the best-case scenario, your response to the Statement of Reasons will be enough to clear things up. If not, your clearance will be revoked and you'll have to appeal either in writing or by requesting an in-person hearing before an administrative judge.
Overwhelmed yet? Your career is on the line, so consider getting a good lawyer to help you through this. While it may feel like you're on trial, the government will not provide legal counsel for you.
If you hold a security clearance, you should already know that the three biggest killers to keeping that access — and your job — are problems with booze, money or drugs. But these days, security clearance snafus can involve so much more.
That's a lesson even the top brass are learning the hard way. Revelations about an affair between then-CIA director retired Army Gen. David Petraeus and his biographer, reserve officer Paula Broadwell, first came to light when investigators found emails stashed in a shared-access account.
But even something as seemingly innocuous as a defensive joke in an old Facebook profile may be enough to sink a career.
"Facebook posts are probably the biggest thing people need to deal with," says retired Navy Capt. David Price, a former military judge turned private attorney who specializes in helping troops and military contractors with clearance problems.
"It is extremely common now in all background reviews to look at … every sort of social media," Price says. "So the college kid who's been posting all his drinking pictures for the past four years could really have a problem."
But it's not just stupid pictures. One recent client — a second lieutenant dentist of Middle Eastern descent — lost his clearance after joking in his online profile that that he was a "part-time terrorist and full-time peacemaker." The line, posted years earlier, was a response to being dubbed a "terrorist" while in dental school.
The clearance was reinstated, but it took nearly two years.
Notre Dame's Manti Te'o isn't alone in regretting an online relationship. Dating someone from another country has long been problematic for those protecting national secrets, but today getting cozy with someone — anyone — online can pose problems.
Such problems are proliferating with the growth of online dating sites, says Alan Edmunds, an attorney who has specialized in clearing up clearance problems for the past 35 years.
"Any contact — ongoing, not a one-timer — is a concern during clearance reviews," he says.
If your clearance requires a polygraph test, expect questions about your online life. "Polygraphers will ask you about ongoing relationships over the Internet now," Edmunds says. "But even someone with just a secret clearance can have problems with Facebook friends from other countries."
Marriage and family
It's no secret that the clearance authorities don't want you sleeping with the enemy. And they especially don't want you marrying one.
While that's always been true if your spouse is from a hostile nation, now even spouses from allied nations can pose problems.
"I've handled cases where the spouse was from Canada and the U.K.," Edmunds says. More typically, though, problems can arise when the spouse is from economic rivals such as China, Russia, Vietnam and India.
That goes for naturalized citizens with clearances from those nations as well. "We're seeing brilliant scientists originally from, say, India, who've lived and worked in this country for 20 years renewing their clearances and getting denied," Edmunds says.
Usually that's because they're sending money back to family members. They may have been doing that openly for years, "but suddenly the standards have changed," Edmunds says.
Meanwhile, even troubled marriages can mean problems for your clearance. "If you have a clearance and go home tonight and get in a fight with your wife and push her down, and she reports that to the police, you're going to have a problem with your clearance," Edmunds says.
James Rawles, a former Army intelligence officer turned survival expert and end-of-times fiction writer, who now runs the prepper site Survival Blog, says he was shocked to learn that reading his books could put a top-secret clearance in jeopardy.
He recently got a note from a military fan who "told me that he was the subject of an 'expanded reinvestigation'" on his clearance over questions of loyalty.
"The challenges, he discovered, were based upon his email history and the assortment of books that he had purchased for his Kindle reader. Among other prepper-oriented books, he had Kindle copies of all three of my novels, and the investigator's report specifically mentioned them as suspect," Rawles wrote in a recent post.
"That doesn't surprise me," Edmunds says. Books on explosives have been red flags in clearance investigations in the past.
"You don't lose your clearance just for something like that. Investigators still have to connect the dots to something else."
Taking illegal drugs has long been a clearance killer. But these days, it can just as easily be a matter of taking legal drugs illegally.
Drugs used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, for example, often are misused.
"Kids in school are using their buddy's Ritalin or Adderall as a study aid," Price says. "That's now carrying beyond school into young adult life as a way to get an edge on peers and competitors. This is a huge issue. Security clearance reviewers are catching on."
Even using your own meds properly can be problematic. "If you're on a strong psychotic medication for depression or anxiety, that can be a concern," Edmunds says.
Depending on where you work, even seeing a therapist can be an issue.
"Certain agencies — particularly the [National Security Agency] — don't want any therapeutic relationship. They won't say this in public, but if they see you under the care of a psychiatrist, you're dead meat when it comes to your clearance," Edmunds says.
But most people won't have a problem if they're responsibly addressing mental health issues.
"What the government is going to look at is: Do you have a problem, do you know you have a problem, are you getting help for the problem … and is the help controlling the problem?" Price says. "As long as you have the right answers to those questions, you're usually not going to have an issue keeping a clearance."
Clearance problems arise "when someone is unwilling to recognize they have a problem, unwilling to follow medical guidance, unwilling to take their meds, and then they start having behavior issues."
"Never, never lie. If they catch you in a lie, you're totally dead," Price says. "I had one guy who had actually been tortured by the enemy after he'd been captured and did not disclose national secrets. But when he later, out of embarrassment, lied about a DUI, he got into big trouble. We were able to get his clearance reinstated, but most people will lose their clearance over lying about it, not over the DUI itself."
And whatever your secret is, don't think you'll be able to keep it forever. You may get away with it at lower-level clearances, but as you move up the ladder, it's more than likely you'll eventually have to go do a polygraph.
"They're going to ask, 'Have you ever lied … on your previous clearances?'" Price says. "Once they find out you've been lying all these years, you're not only going to lose your clearance, you're going to lose your job. They might let you get away with using your wife's pain prescription. But if you lie about it, you're dead meat."
Even relatively minor issues with alcohol can be a major headache for clearance holders.
"I recently had a case involving a 26-year-old who was denied a clearance initially because of alcohol consumption in high school — eight years prior. He couldn't remember exactly the frequency or how many beers he had consumed as a minor," Edmunds says.
"I tell my clients, just stop drinking."
Sometimes you don't even need to have an incident. If a reviewer thinks you're hitting the bottle too much, you can be in trouble.
Another Edmunds client lost his clearance because on weekends he liked to sit at home and drink beer and watch sports. He had a clean record — and didn't even have a driver's license because of a bad leg — but acknowledged drinking a case of beer every weekend.
"They thought that was excessive even though he did not have a single alcohol-related incident," Edmunds says.
While a single DUI can be a career killer, it won't necessarily kill your clearance. But you need to report it to your security officer.
"You can't be criminally convicted for failure to report an offense under [military law], but you can still lose your clearance," Edmunds says. "And the next time you fill out your SF-86 (Security Clearance Questionnaire), if you don't disclose that incident, that's a felony subject to up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine."
Food, supplements and teas
One Army Reserve lieutenant colonel, who also worked for the Navy as a civilian, nearly lost his clearance after testing positive for cocaine — from an herbal tea he had begun drinking.
Others have had false positives from supplements such as hemp seed oil.
Of course, even if you're able to clear things up eventually, once you've tested positive, your clearance typically will be suspended until your case has been resolved.
And if you think smoking some weed in Washington state and Colorado is OK because those states have legalized recreational marijuana use, think again.
"The federal government doesn't care," Edmunds says. "It's still illegal as far your clearance is concerned."
"It's amazing to me that people are still using their government-provided — or contractor-provided — computers for inappropriate stuff. But even just using a government network can get you in trouble. They're getting caught left and right," Price says.
Even just spending too much time surfing the Internet during work can get you in trouble. "It goes back to personal conduct and integrity — you're being paid, but not working."
It's not only a matter of downloading software, music or porn, he says. "It's now also what you're using your time to do."
This comes up pretty routinely after troops return from a deployment or temporary duty and turn in their government laptop or plug back into the government network. "It gets picked up pretty quickly what they've been doing," Price says.
Even emailing off-color jokes can be a problem.
"You still find cultures in some workplaces where the men are passing these salacious jokes around. That used to be ignored, but not anymore," Edmunds says.
Of course, all that now applies to government-issue smartphones, too.
Price recently had a client who was accused of averaging 300 texts a day with his girlfriend. "The government's case was basically, 'You couldn't have been working that much if you were that busy texting.'"
Falling behind on the mortgage? Trying to unload your house with a short sale? Think twice, especially if you're struggling with other bills.
"It's taken them a long time to get there, but the government is getting a little better about mortgage issues — a little," Price says. "And only if it's just the mortgage and it's because the economy tanked."
Still, about 85 percent of the people who have problems with their clearances are flagged — at least in part — because of financial issues.
If you're struggling, Price's advice is to "pick one account that you're going to fall behind on and just limit it to that."
But no matter what, pay your taxes. "They're still pretty deadly when it comes to state and federal taxes."