Can a Felon Get a Security Clearance?

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Why would felons want to get a security clearance? Isn’t it challenging enough to find a job, any job?

Well, there might be circumstances in which you might need to obtain a security clearance, but you may not know how or even if you can get one. Let’s take a look at exactly what’s involved.  

In this article, we’ll cover the following:

  • What Is a Security Clearance?
  • Types of Security Clearance
  • What Jobs Require a Security Clearance?
  • Who Issues a Security Clearance?
  • How to Get a Security Clearance
  • Disqualifiers for a Security Clearance
  • What Felonies Disqualify You?
  • Background Check?
  • What If You Fail the Background Check?

What Is a Security Clearance?

Just as the name implies, a security clearance allows a person to have access to classified information. A security clearance is typically issued by the government for that purpose. 

Classified information typically involves military documents, production, and operation of nuclear weapons, or information relating to sensitive communications with foreign governments. Usually, the president, vice president, or the head of a federal agency will make the decision that something needs to be classified.

Types of Security Clearance

There are three types of security clearance, including confidential, secret, and top secret. Each level allows a person access to certain information up to and including that particular level.  

Let’s take a look at exactly what each level of security is.  

Confidential security clearance allows access to information that can cause damage to national security if it is disclosed without any type of authorization.  

Secret security clearance permits access to information that can cause serious damage to national security if revealed without prior authorization.  

Top secret security clearance provides access to information that can cause extremely grave damage to national security when disclosed without authorization.  

What Jobs Require a Security Clearance?

Most of the jobs that someone with a security clearance can get are ones working for the government or the military. There are also other civilian positions that require a security clearance. These are jobs such as an aerospace engineer or someone in weapons manufacturing.

Among the largest job groups that require a security clearance are military personnel, defense contractors, and others who work in that capacity for the federal government. 

There may be times when someone in the medical, telecommunications, education, or financial field may require some type of security clearance.  

However, not all jobs at such a high level demand a security clearance. Let’s take a look.

There are many top-secret facilities that are involved with the military or national defense. Even many of the basic jobs often considered to be entry level such as custodial positions require a security clearance. 

This is simply because of the ready access that all individuals who work there have to classified information whether their job duties involve high level access or not.

While not all federal jobs require a security clearance, all federal positions do require an applicant to undergo a “suitability adjudication,” which means they must be evaluated as to the likelihood that they will carry out the duties of such a position with, “integrity, efficiency, and effectiveness.”

Who Issues a Security Clearance?

As a part of the Department of State, the Bureau of Human Resources will determine who needs a security clearance due to their duties and responsibilities.  

Until recently, most security clearance investigations were conducted by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM). A recent executive order gave that authority to the Department of Defense’s Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency (DCSA). 

There is a difference between completing a background investigation and issuing a security clearance. Clearance determinations are made by the agency that issue applicants a clearance. DCSA, and previously, OPM’s National Background Investigations Bureau, are investigation providers. 

They provide the information necessary to make a security clearance determination, but they don’t actually award the clearance.

How to Get a Security Clearance

Obtaining a security clearance requires going through a number of steps that will look at your personal and professional history and your loyalty to the U.S. 

This will be accomplished through looking at such things as: 

  • Strength of character 
  • Trustworthiness 
  • Honesty 
  • Reliability 
  • Discretion 
  • Sound judgment 

It is important for anyone wanting to get a security clearance to be able to abide by regulations for handling and protecting that information. A security clearance is only given to someone because of their need to protect national security interests of the country.  

The first requirement to get a security clearance is to have a job that requires one with the federal government or as a government contractor.

Applying for a security clearance involves a(n): 

  • Application 
  • Background check 
  • Adjudication 

There will also be a face-to-face interview with a Department of State investigator. It can take anywhere from six months to a year to complete this process. The investigation paperwork to be completed is available here.

It is rare to grant any type of temporary clearance. Once the application has been submitted, there’s really no way to speed up the process.

Top secret clearances are reviewed every five years while secret clearances are reviewed every 10 years and confidential clearances are reviewed every 15 years.

Disqualifiers for a Security Clearance

There are a number of factors that can disqualify you from gaining a security clearance. These are separate from the question of having a criminal history.

Here we will look at what those are.

Anyone who is addicted to a controlled substance, deemed mentally incompetent by a licensed professional, or who has been dishonorably discharged from the military will be forbidden from gaining a security clearance.  

Active duty members of the military who have been convicted of a felony and sentenced to a prison term of more than one year will not be allowed access to restricted information.  

Among the important factors that are looked at for determining suitability to have a security clearance involves such things as allegiance to the U.S. 

Security concerns may be raised for anyone who wants to overthrow the government or is sympathetic with those attempting to overthrow the government.  

A history of criminal activity creates doubt about someone’s judgment, reliability, and trustworthiness. Conditions that can raise a significant security concern include allegations of criminal conduct without a formal charge and whether this was a single crime or multiple offenses.  

If the criminal behavior was not recent or was an isolated incident, this can work in your favor. There must also be evidence of a successful rehabilitation.  

What Felonies Disqualify You?

In addition to questions about loyalty to the United States, there is the issue of a felony conviction. 

A felony conviction does not automatically disqualify you from getting a security clearance, but it will be difficult to achieve if you don’t have everything lined up for yourself.  

Whether a felon can receive a security clearance depends on certain factors. 

Typical felony convictions that could be difficult to get around include: 

  • Dishonesty like theft or embezzlement
  • Substance abuse like a DUI
  • Possession of controlled substances

Positive factors for an applicant include, if:

  • The felony was not recent.
  • The crime was an isolated incident.
  • Someone was coerced into committing the crime.
  • Someone did not voluntarily commit the crime.
  • Acquittal was granted.
  • There is clear evidence of rehabilitation.

Obtaining a security clearance will depend on the particular offense. Even if you have your criminal record expunged, all charges within the past seven years must be disclosed when applying for a security clearance. You must disclose information regardless of whether the record was sealed, expunged, or dismissed.

The following felonies that are older than seven years must also be disclosed:

  • Violent crimes
  • Domestic violence
  • Firearm-related offenses
  • Crimes involving explosives
  • Alcohol- or drug-related crimes

Failing to disclose crimes in any of these categories will lead to permanent denial because that would constitute a felony. Of course, that is something you don’t need as that would lead to being incarcerated again.

Background Check?

Positions within the federal government are classified as:  

  • Non-sensitive positions 
  • Public trust positions
  • National security positions

Each of these positions requires some type of background check, which may differ depending on the level of security clearance required for a position. The depth of the background investigation depends on the position’s requirements as well as the level of security clearance that is needed for that position.

For lower levels of security clearances, background investigations typically involve automated checks of an applicant’s history. 

For a secret clearance in a national security position, the background check requires an interview by government agents with those who have lived or worked with you at some point in the last seven years. This is in addition to the background paperwork mentioned above that must be completed.

What If You Fail the Background Check?

Due to the strict nature of the background check that is completed as part of the security clearance investigation, many applicants do fail this check.

It isn’t easy to get a security clearance. If you want to get this clearance as a felon, you should be honest about all information that you present when you apply for any job that requires this type of clearance.

If you fail the background check, it isn’t the end of the world. It doesn’t mean that you can’t get a job. It simply indicates that you cannot work in a job that requires a security clearance.

There are still employers who may be willing to consider hiring you. You just need to find a job that does not involve such a high level of security. They are out there. You need to be persistent in looking. Don’t get discouraged and give up.

Don’t be defined by your crime. You can get beyond your past and begin again.

You are not defined by your crime but in how you recover from it.

What do you think about this blog post? Have you or someone you know with a felony tried to get a security clearance? What was that like, and what happened? Please tell us in the comments below.

About the author

After earning his MBA from Benedictine University, Ron was looking for a new challenge and stumbled on the idea of helping the formerly incarcerated.

Using what he learned, Ron developed this website as a free resource and has worked with his team​ to continue answering questions for those in need.

6 thoughts on “Can a Felon Get a Security Clearance?”

  1. Need to know if my husbands felony in 1992 would stop him from getting security clearance? It was for possession of a firearm, he was 18 years and hasn’t gotten more than a seat belt ticket since.

  2. Hello,

    I had 2 felony convictions in 1993. One was a “Manufacturing explosives without a permit” (made a small “pipe bomb”) and the second was “Grand theft” (car stereo). Since my conviction, I’ve only received one speeding ticket. I had my felonies expunged in 2014. The Grand theft was a “wobbler” and was reduced to a misdemeanor prior to the expungement. Since then, I have held high level engineering jobs, own my home, etc. I even possess a concealed carry license.

    I’m wondering if I would be able to pass the background test, and also what information I would need to disclose on the forms, since the conviction is over 25 years old, and the expungement happened 6 years ago. Thanks!

  3. I was convicted of a felony while in the Military in 2011 and had to register as a sex offender. Despite the conviction, I was allowed to retire under Honorable conditions and was get a security clearance in 2014. I have an MBA and PMP and recently worked for a company for 6 years but was fired when the company was acquired by another. My circumstances are odd, but a clearance can be obtained. Just be extremely honest during the investigation. I am now applying for a Federal Government Job hoping that the time of nearly 10 years since the conviction will help.

    • How were you able to get pass a background check for your company ? Currently a felon, non-military but still interested in a career in IT. I was young, but it hasn’t been 7 years yet.

  4. Hey Chuck. I am in the same boat as you, but I received a OTH discharge. My conviction was back in 2005. Do I have any chance to get a Security Clearance? Also, I am having a difficult time finding work. Any suggestions for me? Anything will help! Thank you!

  5. I’m also in the same boat, trying to get a secret clearance for BOEING BDS but i’m worry about my background check. The felony was bank embezzlement back in 2001. They gave me a 5 years probation and 1 year extra in order to collect my restitution. I was working at the airport since 2001. That was before my court date. But since then almost 20 years, i worked for aviation industry and now trying to get a secret clearance but worry about my charges. My last day of the Probation was in 2009. Will this affect my clearance? Or they only asked 7 years period? What if I try to expunge it; do I still answer i was convicted? Really need a clear advice here.. I don’t want to get fire if my current work find out that i failed the secret clearance because of the felony committed back in 2001.


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