13 Issues That Can Lead to Security Clearance Denial

September 15, 2023
The Law Firm of J.W. Stafford

Many federal jobs require a security clearance. If you are applying for (or thinking about applying for) a federal job that requires security clearance, it is important to be aware of the issues that can lead to security clearance denial. While it is possible to challenge a security clearance denial in some cases, this isn’t always possible, and, generally speaking, it is best to proactively address any issues before beginning the application process.

Security clearance applications are governed by the Adjudicative Guidelines for Determining Eligibility for Access to Classified Information (the “Adjudicative Guidelines”) in the Code of Federal Regulations. The Adjudicative Guidelines identify 13 categories of issues that can lead to security clearance denials.

Grounds for Security Clearance Denial Under the Adjudicative Guidelines

When evaluating security clearance applications, examiners must make “an overall common sense determination based upon careful consideration” of the Adjudicative Guidelines while considering “the context of the whole person.” This “whole person” concept is fundamental to the application process—and it means that no single issue is necessarily a bar to obtaining clearance. It also provides grounds to challenge security clearance denials in many cases. With this in mind, the issues that can potentially lead to security clearance denial under the Adjudicative Guidelines are:

1. Lack of Allegiance to the United States

The Adjudicative Guidelines state that a security clearance applicant must have “unquestioned allegiance to the United States.” Involvement in “any act of sabotage, espionage, treason, terrorism, sedition,” or other efforts to overthrow the U.S. government can potentially lead to a security clearance denial.

2. Foreign Influence

Any risk of foreign influence is also grounds for denial of federal security clearance under the Adjudicative Guidelines. Issues that may lead to a finding of foreign influence include (but are not limited to) living with non-U.S. citizens or individuals who may be “subject to duress” from foreign interests and having relatives or associates who have connections to a foreign government.

3. Foreign Preference

Actions that “indicate a preference for a foreign country over the United States” can lead to federal security clearance denial. Some examples of issues in this category include:

  • Dual citizenship
  • Residence in a foreign country in order to meet its citizenship requirements
  • Possession of a foreign passport
  • Using foreign citizenship to protect financial or business interests in a foreign country
  • Voting in foreign elections

4. Sexual Behavior

The Adjudicative Guidelines state that sexual behavior is a concern for federal security clearance purposes if it “involves a criminal offense, indicates a personality or emotional disorder, may subject the individual to coercion, exploitation, or duress, or reflects lack of judgment or discretion.” With regard to criminal offenses, prosecution is not necessary to trigger a security clearance denial.

5. Personal Conduct

The Adjudicative Guidelines also state that certain forms of personal conduct can raise questions about an applicant’s ability to adequately safeguard classified information. These include forms of conduct that exhibit:

  • Questionable judgment
  • Untrustworthiness
  • Unreliability
  • Lack of candor or dishonesty
  • Unwillingness to comply with rules and regulations

Under the Adjudicative Guidelines, refusal to undergo medical or psychological testing and refusal to complete necessary forms or interviews can be disqualifying as well. Deliberately providing false or misleading information in a federal security clearance application is also grounds for denial.

6. Financial Considerations

According to the Adjudicative Guidelines, “[a]n individual who is financially overextended is at risk of having to engage in illegal acts to generate funds.” Thus, a history of not meeting financial obligations, inability to satisfy debts, and financial problems linked to gambling and substance dependence (among other financial issues) are all potential grounds for denial of a federal security clearance application.

7. Alcohol Consumption

Evidence of “alcohol-related incidents” both at work and away from work can lead to denial of a federal security clearance application as well. According to the Adjudicative Guidelines, “[e]xcessive alcohol consumption often leads to the exercise of questionable judgment, unreliability, failure to control impulses, and increases the risk of unauthorized disclosure of classified information due to carelessness.”

8. Drug Involvement

Evidence of drug use can also be disqualifying when seeking a federal security clearance. This includes evidence of illegal drug possession, evidence of drug abuse, evaluation for drug dependence, diagnosis as drug-dependent, and failure to successfully complete a prescribed drug treatment program.  

9. Emotional, Mental and Personality Disorders

The Adjudicative Guidelines indicate that diagnosis with an emotional, mental or personality disorder that “may indicate a defect in judgment, reliability, or stability” is grounds for denial of a federal security clearance application. However, they also indicate that a diagnosis isn’t necessary if an applicant’s conduct indicates a pattern of irresponsible, unstable or other high-risk behavior.

10. Criminal Conduct

Allegations of criminal conduct, “regardless of whether the [applicant] was formally charged,” can be enough to trigger a security clearance denial in some cases. Time passed, the limited severity of the allegations, acquittal and evidence of rehabilitation are among the factors that can mitigate the consequences of criminal allegations.

11. Security Violations

Unauthorized disclosure of classified information can lead to a security clearance denial under the Adjudicative Guidelines. Evidence that the disclosure was inadvertent, was an isolated event or was the result of inadequate training can weigh against denial.

12. Outside Activities

The Adjudicative Guidelines provide that involvement in outside activities is a concern “if it poses a conflict with an individual’s security responsibilities and could create an increased risk of unauthorized disclosure of classified information.” As examples of “outside activities,” the Adjudicative Guidelines list providing services to:

  • A foreign country
  • A foreign national
  • A representative of any foreign interest
  • Any organization involved in intelligence, defense, foreign affairs or protected technology
  • Any individual involved in the analysis, discussion or publication of material on the subjects of intelligence, defense, foreign affairs or protected technology

13. Misuse of Information Technology Systems

Finally, the Adjudicative Guidelines state that “[n]oncompliance with rules, procedures, guidelines, or regulations pertaining to information technology systems may raise security concerns about an individual’s trustworthiness, willingness, and ability to properly protect classified systems, networks, and information.” Inadvertence and prompt efforts to correct the issue are examples of mitigating factors in this category.

Again, while all of these issues can potentially lead to a security clearance denial, none of them serve as complete bars to obtaining security clearance and gaining access to classified information. If you have concerns about applying for a federal security clearance or have had your federal security clearance application denied, we encourage you to contact us for more information.

Contact Us About Your Federal Security Clearance Application or Denial

To speak with a federal employment lawyer about your security clearance application or denial, please contact us to arrange a confidential consultation. Call 410-514-6099 or tell us how we can reach you online to schedule an appointment today.