What Is Top Secret Clearance?

A top secret clearance allows you to access information that could cause exceptionally grave damage to national security if it was disclosed without authorization. Having this level of clearance opens doors at government agencies and private organizations with federal contracts.


The background investigation for this level of clearance is more in-depth than that required for the other two levels. This involves interviewing acquaintances and family members, examining social media, and reviewing personal finances.

What is a Top Secret Clearance?

A Top Secret Clearance is a security classification level that grants access to classified information that, if disclosed, could cause exceptionally grave damage to national security or organizational interests. Only trusted individuals with a demonstrated need-to-know may hold a Top Secret clearance. Clearance holders are required to sign non-disclosure agreements and undergo regular reinvestigations.

The process to obtain a Top Secret Clearance is long, complex, and highly invasive. Clearance investigators will review every aspect of an applicant’s life, from their home address to their social media accounts, and interview anyone who knows them—friends, relatives, and neighbors—about their habits, ethics, and values. If investigators find anything of concern, the clearance will be denied or revoked.

Individuals who need a security clearance for a job in the federal government, military, or intelligence agency must pass a background investigation and meet fitness standards. This investigation will include checks of an applicant’s allegiance, foreign influence, financial considerations, criminal activity, outside activities, and psychological conditions.

Once investigators finish their work, a trained personnel security specialist (adjudicator) will review the results of the Tier 3 and Tier 5 Personnel Security Investigations and compare them to 13 guidelines set by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. The adjudicator will then grant the clearance to the applicant or deny it, and their decision will be reported to the hiring agency.

What is the Process for Obtaining a Top Secret Clearance?

Top Secret clearance is necessary for people whose jobs require them to work with classified information. Clearance holders must follow the need-to-know principle and access only the information they need to perform their duties. They also undergo regular security awareness training and must abide by strict physical and technical security measures. Clearances are granted by trained personnel security specialists (adjudicators) employed by federal agencies.

A clearance investigation involves a thorough review of an individual’s personal history, from education and employment to foreign connections. Investigators contact people who know the candidate and interview them about their relationship with him or her. They also review financial records and check with credit reporting agencies. The investigation is more detailed than for lower-level clearances and goes back ten years. Applicants are required to complete the Standard Form 86 (SF 86) or an equivalent form.

People who work with classified information must undergo a reinvestigation every five years. This involves submitting an updated security package and having a background investigator review their life since the last investigation. They must address any new information or issues raised by the investigator. If they do not pass the reinvestigation, their clearance may be revoked or denied. Clearances can be revoked or denied for many reasons, including involvement in political activities, criminal convictions and drug abuse. In such cases, a person can appeal the decision to a hearing officer or administrative judge (AJ).

What are the Requirements for Obtaining a Top Secret Clearance?

For those seeking a position with the government that requires access to classified information, top-secret clearance is one of the highest levels available. Obtaining this level of clearance involves a lengthy and in-depth background investigation.

This includes interviews of people who know the candidate, checking public records for bankruptcies or divorce, examining credit reports and verifying educational history and military service. The scope of the investigation expands for Top Secret clearance, as does the amount of personal identifying information required on the Standard Form 86 (SF86). This can include details like names and dates of birth; employment and education history; residence and citizenship; foreign travels, assets, and contacts; character references; mental health issues; and criminal record.

Once cleared, individuals are expected to follow the need-to-know principle and maintain strict security protocols in order to minimize the risk of unauthorized disclosure. They also undergo regular reinvestigations and training. If an individual’s conduct is deemed unfavorable, the government can initiate action to revoke their clearance and/or sensitive positions.

The National Security Adjudicative Guidelines outline the issues that can disqualify an individual from a clearance. The most common issue is Guideline F, Financial Considerations, with the remainder of the list being Guideline B, Criminal Conduct, and Guideline E, Personal Conduct. When the Department of Defense Office of Hearings and Appeals (DOHA) decides to deny or revoke a clearance, it is usually on the basis of one or more of these issues.

How Can I Obtain a Top Secret Clearance?

Top Secret Clearance is a highly sought-after credential in the field of InfoSec and Cybersecurity, providing access to high-level national security projects. It is the highest level of classified information that can be shared, and obtaining this clearance requires rigorous background investigations and a demonstrated need-to-know.

The federal government defines levels of classified national security information based on the potential damage that could occur to the United States if that information were released to individuals not authorized to receive it. The three categories of classified national security information are Confidential, Secret, and Top Secret. Information with the Top Secret level of classification can cause exceptionally grave damage to national security if it is disclosed to unauthorized people. This type of information can only be shared with people who have been granted Top Secret clearance, and that clearance must be reinvestigated every five years.

Most federal employees and contractors who have access to classified information must hold a security clearance. Candidates who require a clearance can apply for it by visiting their local FBI field office and completing the Standard Form 86 (SF86) or SF85P, Questionnaire for National Security Positions. They also need to provide two FD-258 fingerprint cards. The SF86 forms are 130 pages long, so it is important to provide accurate and detailed information to speed up the investigation process.