What Is Top Secret Clearance?

Top secret clearance is the highest level of security, allowing access to information that can cause grave damage if leaked. It’s also the most difficult clearance to obtain.


A background investigation for this level includes checks on financial records, foreign travel and ties to non-US citizens. Bankruptcy is a common disqualifier for this level of clearance.

Job Security

A security clearance must be reinvestigated at regular intervals to ensure its continued validity. The type of reinvestigation required varies according to your level of clearance. Confidential clearance holders are subject to a Tier 3 Reinvestigation; Secret and Top Secret clearances require a Tier 5 Reinvestigation.

The reinvestigation process involves checking records from your past, present and current employment; educational institutions, organizations and associations; contacts with foreign nationals; financial considerations such as hefty debt or excessive credit; and criminal and civil matters such as domestic violence, drug abuse and convictions for violent crimes. The investigator may interview your family members, friends and acquaintances to get a more complete picture of your background. The reinvestigation also checks your financial stability, and your mental health status to determine whether you can make good judgments in the workplace and safeguard classified information.

After the reinvestigation is complete, the Department of Defense’s Personnel Security Service (DSS) adjudicators determine whether to grant your clearance at the confidential, secret or top secret level. The adjudicators consider all the information from your SF86 and a national security suitability assessment, which are evaluated in accordance with 13 adjudicative guidelines, such as allegiance to the United States, sensitivity to the classified information, a willingness to cooperate with investigators and patterns of behavior that are concerning. If your clearance is denied or revoked, you will be informed of the reason(s) and given procedures for appealing the decision.

Career Advancement

Top secret clearance opens up opportunities for professionals in the InfoSec and Cybersecurity industry to work on cutting-edge projects and contribute to national security efforts. It also demonstrates that a candidate is a trusted and valuable addition to any team. Clearance holders are highly sought after by government agencies, defense contractors, and cybersecurity firms.

The level of clearance required depends on the sensitivity of the information to be accessed, with Confidential being lowest in sensitivity, Secret being slightly more sensitive, and then Top Secret which is a highly restrictive classification that requires the highest level of scrutiny. The decision to classify information is based on executive orders and US federal law. A person cannot get a security clearance on their own; it is granted by the sponsor of the position they are applying for, either a government department or an organization that has contracts with a government agency.

Most jobs that require a Top Secret clearance will only hire candidates who already hold one or are able to obtain it within a reasonable amount of time, since the process can take between six and 18 months. The clearance is not a license to disclose classified information, and individuals who receive one must sign a non-disclosure agreement and pass an SSBI Period Reinvestigation (SSBI PR) every five years.

Salary Boosts

The security clearance process requires candidates to undergo a thorough examination of their financial and personal histories. This includes credit checks, interviews with neighbors and acquaintances, and investigations into foreign contacts and criminal records. Clearances can be denied for a variety of reasons, including drug use, DUIs, gambling debts and more. This level of scrutiny is part of what makes top secret clearance so valuable in the job market; a cleared person has proven they can be trusted with sensitive information.

In addition to the obvious benefits of job security, a top secret clearance can also open doors to more lucrative employment opportunities. Defense contractors often pay a premium for employees that possess this type of clearance. The exact amount can vary based on the specific position and responsibilities. In some cases, it can be worth thousands of dollars more than a similar position that does not require a clearance.

According to the Human Resources Association of the National Capital Area, security-cleared professionals are typically paid 5-15% more than their uncleared counterparts in similar positions. This translates to a salary of between $100,000 and $115,000.

Specialized Skills

A Top Secret clearance can open doors to higher-level jobs in InfoSec and Cybersecurity, as well as leadership positions at government agencies, defense contractors, intelligence organizations, and cybersecurity firms. It can also lead to specialized training and certifications that further boost one’s career prospects. It demonstrates a high level of trustworthiness and commitment to national security.

The information a person must access determines the level of clearance needed. The US government classifies information based on whether it would cause damage to national security or foreign relations, such as information related to nuclear weapons and fissile materials. Security clearances are governed by executive order and US law.

Background investigations for a Top Secret clearance may involve a broad range of individuals, from current and former employers to friends and family members. Investigators may seek answers to questions, issue subpoenas, or request psychiatric evaluations.

A Top Secret clearance is a requirement for access to classified information, and it must be renewed every five years. If a person has a Top Secret clearance, they have access to Sensitive Compartmented Information (SCI), which includes the most sensitive information in the federal government. Investigators may delve into many aspects of the individual’s life, including financial records and social media activity. The FBI has a set of guidelines that must be met for a clearance to be granted or renewed, including unquestioned allegiance to the United States and no involvement in activities that could prevent others from exercising their rights under the Constitution or laws of the US.