How to Get Top-Secret Clearance

Top secret clearance allows access to information/assets where disclosure could cause exceptionally grave damage. This level requires a more in-depth investigation including reviews of personal and professional data, national agency checks, credit checks, polygraph tests and interviews with neighbors and coworkers.


Individuals cannot apply for this clearance on their own and must be sponsored by a government department or contractor. It can take up to 10 years to complete the process.

Background Investigations

If you accept a job that requires security clearance, the wheels are set in motion to start an extensive background investigation. It depends on the position and level of clearance, but the process can take months or more. If you are applying for a TS clearance, the process is even more intensive.

The investigators will be checking the details of your life, going back as far as possible. They’ll interview friends and family, check the places where you lived, look into your financial records, and find out more about your personal interests. They’ll also check for ties to foreign governments and countries and examine your mental health. They are looking for loyalty to the United States and a pattern of good conduct.

If your application contains any disqualifying information, it will be noted on the SF-86 form. Depending on the nature of the issue, it might trigger a PR (Provisional Reexamination), a limited investigation, or other action. If the issue is serious, it may not be resolved and the clearance application might be denied.

It’s important to be honest and cooperative with investigators, especially when they ask about specific incidents in your past that could disqualify you from a clearance. A single incident won’t necessarily disqualify you but a pattern of bad behavior or an inability to keep your secrets might.

It’s important to remember that a clearance isn’t a license to steal or share information. Whether you are working for the government or in the private sector, you must treat classified information as sacred. Any violations can cause major problems and can lead to criminal investigations and civil suits, not to mention loss of employment. The FBI has a lot of power when it comes to conducting background checks and can suspend your access to classified information or terminate your federal employment if you don’t comply with their requests.

Confidential and Secret Clearances

The highest level of clearance available is Secret. Those who hold this level of clearance can access confidential government documents and information on a need-to-know basis. A Secret clearance can be granted after an individual is deemed reliable by standard checks, open-source investigations, and a security questionnaire or interview. It is generally required for hourly positions that require escorted access to sensitive national security data or facilities, such as secretaries and computer-support personnel.

For those who want to work on a project that requires a higher level of classified information, a Top Secret clearance may be necessary. The process for obtaining a Top Secret clearance takes longer and involves more extensive vetting. It includes a Tier 5 investigation, which replaced the NACLC and SSBI investigations in October 2016. It also includes a polygraph examination.

A person can be sponsored for a top-secret clearance by a federal agency that holds the information, or by a contractor who has been approved by the government to sponsor a cleared employee. The individual must also meet the criteria for a top-secret position, as determined by OPM.

The average end-to-end processing time for a Confiential or Secret clearance is 76 days at DCSA for the fourth quarter of fiscal 2022. This does not include the 10% of cases that are considered to be “extreme risk” and have significantly longer processing times. The length of the investigation also depends on whether a potential disqualifying issue is present and surfaces. Financial considerations have been the most common potential disqualifying issues raised in Defense Office of Hearings and Appeals (DOHA) cases. Other issues that have appeared frequently include drug involvement and criminal conduct. The DOHA caseload includes both DoD and non-DoD civilian and military personnel. If an individual is not granted a clearance, they can respond in writing to the statement of reasons for the denial or revocation and request a review of their case by a DOHA AJ.

Top Secret Clearances

The most sensitive clearance level is Top Secret. The clearance allows a person to access classified information on a need-to-know basis. The information could relate to national security, foreign policy or nuclear weapons and fissile material. Only certain employees of federal agencies and some private organizations that have contracts with the government have this level of clearance. They are required to undergo a more extensive background investigation and a polygraph examination. This level of clearance is also required for some military personnel after they leave the service.

To be cleared at this level, an individual is required to complete a Tier 5 investigation, which replaced the SSBI (Single Scope Background Investigation) in 2016. The Tier 5 process includes a more thorough review of an applicant’s personal history and additional interviews including an Enhanced Subject Interview. The Tier 5 investigation must be completed before an individual can be granted a Top Secret clearance or a Department of Energy “Q” authorization for access to Sensitive Compartmented Information (SCI) and other Special Access Program (SAP) information.

The background investigations for all levels of security clearances are conducted by the same agency – the Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency (DCSA CAS). As of 2022, average end-to-end processing times for Top Secret clearances at DCSA were 110 days, down from the 147-day peak in 2015 when OPM took over the responsibility for conducting these types of investigations from CIA. However, the overall number of clearance cases has remained relatively stable for years. For the past few years, financial considerations (Guideline F) has ranked as the most common reason for clearance denial or revoking. This is followed by Guideline E – Personal Conduct and then by Guideline B – Foreign Influence. All of these issues may be the result of false information on a clearance application, but financial concerns have consistently been a more frequent problem than drug or alcohol involvement, criminal conduct and foreign influence.