Most federal agencies require summer, term-time, and post-graduate applicants to undergo some degree of security check before employment; the level of scrutiny varies with the nature of the position and the agency involved. A “suitability check” determines if you’re generally fit for federal employment; it requires a rather routine and limited investigation (a questionnaire and fingerprints). Many DOJ summer internships, for example, require simply a suitability check. Permanent employment may require a more extensive check of references, former employers, coworkers, friends, neighbors, landlords, institutions of higher education, and credit/military/tax/police records. If you will have access to classified information or are working in national security, you may need a “security clearance”, which will require an even higher degree of scrutiny. Agencies that historically have required security clearances include portions of DOJ, the CIA, and the Department of Defense. While this process almost always runs smoothly and is completed without a problem, suitability checks and/or security clearances for DOJ and other federal agencies have occasionally taken long periods of time and have proven a major obstacle to a few applicants.
There are certain relatively common factors that are likely to slow down a suitability check or security clearance. Approval can take longer if students have dual citizenship, and dual citizenship with certain countries (such as Iran) can sometimes make approval virtually impossible to obtain. Marriage to a non-citizen or extensive international travel can also slow down approval. Candidates for DOJ Honors, SLIP and volunteer internships are all subject to a residency requirement as well: unless applicants were federal or military employees or dependants of such, those who have lived outside of the U.S. for two or more of the last five years may find it difficult to be cleared for hiring, as may applicants who have traveled extensively in countries listed on the State Department’s “state sponsors of terrorism” watch list. At times, a clearance seems to get hung up for no reason at all.
Students have frequently expressed anxiety about whether minor drug experimentation, particularly during their college years, will bar them from receiving internships or post-graduate positions in federal government, especially at DOJ. Drug use and past drug use continue to be taken seriously by all federal employers, including DOJ. This is a particularly difficult issue: admitting to even minor drug use may lead to rejection, and lying is committing perjury. Both OPIA and DOJ strongly recommend that you always answer all questions on security forms honestly.
DOJ currently considers any drug use case-by-case, based on a totality of the circumstances. Factors considered can include what, when, and how often drugs were used, whether purchase or sale was involved, whether use was pre- or post-bar, whether use occurred while in a position of public trust, and potential mitigating circumstances. It is critical to note, however, that each U.S. Attorney’s office independently formulates its own policies regarding prior drug use by applicants. There is no centrally organized, universal U.S. Attorney’s Office policy towards past drug use. For instance, in the past, an HLS student was turned down for a security clearance by the Colorado U.S. Attorney’s Office because he admitted to trying marijuana once on an experimental basis.
In other agencies and departments, policies can vary. A recent change in the FBI’s policy requires that applicants not have used marijuana in the past three years, or other drugs in the past ten years, while loosening restrictions on use prior to those periods. The CIA requires that applicants not have used illegal drugs within the past 12 months, and carefully evaluates any use prior to that year during medical and security processing.
Other Issues of Concern
Other key issues for the suitability check or security clearance can be any defaulted student loans, neglected financial obligations, failure to comply with intellectual property laws (particularly with respect to illegal downloading of music or video recordings), or failure to comply with tax laws. Failure to file or pay taxes may preclude a candidate from obtaining clearance. Lastly, if applicants note use of prescribed antidepressant drugs or mental health treatment, they may be asked for permission to contact their physician or counselor, who may then be asked whether the applicant would have impaired judgment or pose a security risk because of a diagnosis or treatment. Antidepressants or counseling are not bars to federal employment (and DOJ will not review a candidate’s medical records), but the additional inquiries may slow down the process.
If you are concerned about possible factors that may slow down your clearance, or you suspect that the process is taking longer than it should, contact OPIA right away. We can often get additional information for you, and it’s always best for us to know there may be a hold-up early in the process rather than at the last minute. We also urge you to minimize the risk of delays by submitting security forms as soon as you can after receiving them.