What Is Top-Secret Clearance?

Top-secret clearance is the highest level of security clearance available. The process can seem spooky and intrusive, but it’s critical to national security.


Clearance holders can work for government agencies, defense contractors and cybersecurity firms. They’re highly sought after for their ability to access classified information and contribute to national security efforts.

Access to Highly Sensitive Information

A top-secret clearance enables you to handle highly sensitive information. Clearance holders are expected to sign non-disclosure agreements and undergo regular reinvestigations, which helps prevent unauthorized access to classified information. They are also expected to adhere to strict security protocols and procedures, and to follow the need-to-know principle when handling classified information.

In order to obtain a top-secret clearance, you must pass thorough background investigations, including fingerprinting and FBI-investigated interviews. Thorough checks of your financial history and criminal record are also conducted. Clearance holders typically receive training on how to handle classified information safely.

Government agencies, defense contractors and cybersecurity firms often require individuals with a top-secret clearance to work on sensitive projects. In addition to protecting classified information, these professionals are able to contribute to national security efforts by analyzing complex cyber threats and developing cutting-edge defense strategies.

A top secret clearance can be used to access highly sensitive information, such as intelligence-related methods and sources, and information concerning nuclear weapons or fissile material. It is the most restrictive level of clearance and can only be granted after a rigorous SSBI and adjudication process. It is also possible to gain a top-secret clearance through special access programs, which are established by the DoD for high-risk projects. The most common clearance levels are BPSS (Basic Personnel Security Service), TS/SCI (Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmented Information) and SS/SCI with S/T (Secret with a Sensitive compartment). Enhanced screenings, such as CTC or EBS, may be required for long-term supervised access to SS/SCI, or occasional supervised access to TS.

Requirements for Obtaining a Clearance

If you are interested in a career as a government employee or working for certain private contractors, you may need to hold a security clearance. The process of getting a clearance can be lengthy and complex. The government conducts a thorough investigation of all aspects of your life, including financial, criminal and military records, credit checks, employment history, education, family members, neighbors and more. The investigation can take months, and you will be interviewed by investigators and asked questions about your loyalty, honesty, integrity, judgement, mental health and associations with undesirable persons or foreign nationals.

Typically, the higher level of clearance you require, the more intensive the background investigation will be. This is because a top secret clearance grants access to information that could cause exceptionally grave damage if released without authorization.

If you are approved for a top secret clearance, you can access sensitive information and work in high-level jobs that may lead to advancement opportunities within the cybersecurity industry. Clearance holders often enjoy specialized training and are expected to follow strict security protocols and the need-to-know principle. You will be required to sign a non-disclosure agreement and undergo regular reinvestigations. You are also expected to adhere to strict physical and technical security measures at all times. Security clearances are not for life, and if you are unable to maintain your eligibility you can be revoked or downgraded.

Background Investigations

A clearance investigation determines whether a person is trustworthy enough to access classified information. Its scope varies depending on the level of clearance sought and the positions involved. It’s a mandatory process for those seeking positions with federal intelligence agencies, foreign service posts or positions that involve handling highly sensitive national security information. The government also requires that those working at private organizations, non-profits and think tanks that receive federal contracts or grants undergo a background investigation.

A standard Tier 3 investigation uses the ARC (Automated Record Check) system and letter inquiries to verify employment, education, military records, criminal convictions and civil judgments. A Tier 5 investigation is required for Top Secret, Department of Energy “L” access authorization and some other levels of Sensitive Compartmented Information. The Tier 5 investigation expands on the standard ARC system and includes interviews with family members, acquaintances and neighbors, and public records checks that go back more than 10 years.

A person can speed up his or her background investigation by being as complete and accurate as possible on the SF-86 clearance form, known as the Personnel Security Questionnaire. Investigators follow up on the information on the questionnaire by speaking to former coworkers, acquaintances and friends. A person can also mitigate the impact of a potential problem by reporting it honestly on the questionnaire, and by ensuring that there’s sufficient time between the incident and his or her application for a clearance.

Requirements for Maintaining a Clearance

Clearance holders are expected to abide by the need-to-know principle, limiting access to information to those who require it for their work. They undergo security awareness training to learn how to protect classified information and minimize the risk of unauthorized disclosures. They are also subject to stringent physical and technical security measures.

Government agencies that handle classified information each have their own security clearance process, although reciprocity guidelines typically allow each to accept the investigations and adjudications of others. Clearances are categorized as National Security Levels: Confidential, Secret and Top Secret. Information is classified as Top Secret if it is deemed that its unauthorized release would cause exceptionally grave damage to the nation’s security.

Obtaining a Top Secret clearance requires passing a Single Scope Background Investigation (SSBI), which can take from 6 to 18 months. The investigation includes checks on personal history, including honesty, trustworthiness, financial responsibility, credit history, emotional stability and foreign ties. It also requires a review of security-related activities and an interview with a government agent.

Various government departments and agencies each have their own standards for the types of information they are willing to share with clearance holders, and these are usually based on the nature of an individual’s duties. Those who have security clearances can work in fields as diverse as law enforcement, the military, intelligence gathering and research and development. Private companies working on sensitive government projects may also require employees with Top Secret clearance.