Once you are cleared to work for the federal government, the clock starts ticking on your security clearance.
If you stay in your job, you will have to be “reinvestigated” periodically. If you leave your federal agency or contractor job, your clearance can lapse in two years. As you move up the ladder, you may need to obtain a higher level of clearance.
The key is to know your clearance status and be proactive to retain clearance, upgrade or get reinstated.
When does security clearance lapse?
Confidential level clearance, the lowest security threat, is good for 15 years. Secret clearance lasts 10 years. Top Secret clearance must be reinvestigated (reauthorized) every 5 years. This assumes no incidents or allegations arise that would cause the government to scrutinize your clearance.
If you are separated from federal employment (voluntarily or involuntarily), your security clearance can lapse. If you resume work for another federal agency or a federal contractor within that time frame, your clearance is reactivated without an investigation. But if the clock expires, you will essentially have to re-apply for security clearance.
How long does it take to get cleared or re-cleared?
The background investigation accounts for the bulk of the processing period. Clearance for lower level jobs rely more on database searches, while positions with higher security involve interviews and other field work.
According to the National Background Investigations Bureau (NBIB), the average processing time for all security clearances in the defense industry is 325 days:
- Secret and Confidential clearances average 259 days, and 220 days for reinvestigations.
- Top Secret clearances average 543 days, and 697 days for reinvestigations.
Why does security clearance take so long?
The government clears about 4 million people per year, but that is not keeping pace with demand. There is an estimated backlog of 700,000 security clearance cases, about one-third of whom are federal contractors. Top Secret (TS) security clearances used to be performed in less than three months. Now even the most straightforward TS cases take a year or more.
The administration aims to shift all security clearance from the NBIB to the Department of Defense. Even if that is more thorough and efficient in the long run, such a huge transition will likely increase the backlog and chaos in the short term. Applicants will slip through the cracks. Hiring and advancement will be stymied. Agencies and defense clients will get restless.
The government is also shifting to “continuous evaluation,” rather than more labor-intensive field work, to manage clearance and renewals. This will ideally speed processing times and reduce the backlog, but again the growing pains will likely be felt by federal employees and contractors who get lost in the shuffle.
Legal advocacy may become necessary, particularly if you are blocked from advancement or frozen out of jobs because your federal security clearance is in limbo. Passman & Kaplan specializes in federal employment law, including representing government employees whose security clearance is denied, delayed or threatened.