What Happens If You Leak Top-Secret Clearance Information?

If you hold a Top Secret clearance, or TS/SCI for short, you have access to classified national security information on a need-to-know basis. If you leak TS/SCI information, you could face federal charges and even prison.

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Investigators examine your whole life when deciding whether to grant a clearance at any level. Unlike Confidential and Secret clearances, the Top Secret investigation is more intensive.

Background Investigations

For people who want to work with sensitive information that could damage national security, getting a clearance requires a background investigation. Background investigations can take a few months to a year to complete and cover a variety of issues, from financial records to drug use. A single instance of a concern may not disqualify a candidate, but investigators must look at the whole person to determine their reliability and trustworthiness to protect classified data.

During an investigation, investigators will follow-up on information on your application and speak with acquaintances and others who know you well to corroborate and verify the details of your life. These interviews can help investigators understand your judgment, reliability and patriotism, all of which contribute to whether you are a good fit for classified positions.

The more sensitive the position, the greater the scope of a background investigation. Top secret clearances are the most restrictive and require a Single Scope Background Investigation (SSBI), granting access to data that affects national security, including counterterrorism and counterintelligence. People with this level of clearance can also have access to Sensitive Compartmented Information (SCI) and Special Access Program information. They must undergo a reinvestigation every five years to maintain their clearance. A continuous evaluation process is required for people who work with classified material and each agency decides how they will conduct the evaluation.

Reinvestigation

People with Top Secret clearance must undergo periodic reinvestigations. Each agency determines its own procedures for this, but they are all required to meet the requirements of Executive Order 12968. A reinvestigation starts with the employee submitting an updated security package, and the agency conducts a new background investigation. The investigation will cover key aspects of the person’s life since the previous one.

The investigators may follow up on a variety of topics, including work, finances, and personal relationships. They might interview acquaintances or former coworkers, and they will try to verify information in the security package with other sources. In a Top Secret clearance investigation, they will be looking for a more comprehensive range of issues than in a secret clearance investigation.

There is also a continuous evaluation process, and the details of this are determined on an agency-by-agency basis. Federal agencies must review cleared employees every five years, though they can conduct reviews outside of those periods.

Among other things, the continuous evaluation process requires cleared employees to report any new unfavorable information to their facility security officer or government security manager. The FEDO will then report it to the appropriate agency for further review. In addition, Security Executive Agent Directive 5 permits agencies to use publicly available social media data in security clearance decisions.

Continuous Evaluation

Many people in the government, particularly those with Top-secret clearances or higher, have to resubmit their equipment SF-86 every five years, and undergo a periodic reinvestigation. This means updating e-QIP, answering the same long list of questions, and possibly undergoing follow up interviews with investigators. In a perfect world, the periodic process would catch all the potential issues. However, in reality things can happen that aren’t reported – like a security clearance holder gets a DUI or files for bankruptcy. If that happens, the person’s security clearance could be revoked or their ability to access classified information may be restricted.

Currently, the Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency is deferring periodic reinvestigation for some clearance holders and enrolling them into the continuous evaluation program (CE). The CE system utilizes automated records checks, business rules, and technology to help assess continued eligibility to hold a security clearance or work in sensitive positions. It is an important part of the federal government’s efforts to modernize its personnel security practices and move toward a more continuous evaluation model.

The problem is that while the government has made a significant amount of progress on the backlog in terms of processing these cases, the CE process can still take quite a while to complete. In fact, Korody Law Firm has represented a number of clients with investigations that started in 2019 and were resolved only in 2021.

SCI Access

Sensitive Compartmented Information (SCI) is classified national intelligence. This subset of information involves sensitive intelligence sources, methods and analytical processes and must be handled within formal access control systems established by the Director of National Intelligence. Despite the fact that many job applicants list “TS/SCI” clearance on their resumes, being cleared for TS does not automatically give them SCI access. To gain SCI access, you must go through a separate process known as being read into a specific compartment and be given permission to do so by your agency.

If your agency determines that you have a need to know SCI information, they will sponsor you for the appropriate screening and clearance. This additional investigation is much more rigorous than a TS clearance and can include interviews with coworkers, neighbors and family members. You will also have to sign a nondisclosure agreement and abide by a strict set of rules that govern your use of the information.

Once you have a need-to-know clearance and are read into SCI, the SCI information will be generated, processed and stored in a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility (SCIF). The rooms are designed to prevent sound and electronic emissions, and there are no windows. The information is only read and discussed in the SCIF, and there are armed security personnel present at all times to prevent unauthorized access.