InfoSec and Cybersecurity – What is a Top Secret Clearance?

Security clearances are granted by trained personnel security specialists, known as adjudicators. Clearance adjudicators use the National Security Adjudicative Guidelines to decide whether a person can gain access to classified information.


The process can be intimidating and intrusive, with extensive background investigations covering up to 10 years. But for the right people, Top Secret clearance can open doors to jobs with great pay and benefits.

What is a Top Secret Clearance?

In the world of InfoSec and Cybersecurity, a Top Secret Clearance is one of the most valuable credentials that can be earned. It demonstrates an individual’s trustworthiness, dedication to national security efforts, and commitment to the principle of need-to-know. For these reasons, professionals with a Top Secret Clearance are highly sought-after by government agencies and cybersecurity firms alike.

Security clearances are granted by federal agencies and are based on thorough background investigations. The three most common levels of security clearance are Confidential, Secret, and Top Secret. Top Secret is reserved for information whose unauthorized disclosure would cause exceptionally grave damage to national security.

The process for obtaining a Top Secret clearance is a long and rigorous one. A candidate will undergo a thorough investigation that includes verifying their citizenship, conducting interviews with current and former employers and co-workers, and searching public records for information regarding bankruptcies, criminal convictions, and civil lawsuits. Depending on the agency, the investigation may also include additional checks, such as credit, international travel, and military history.

In addition to the investigative process, candidates must be sponsored by an agency that requires the level of clearance for which they are applying. Once they obtain a clearance, they are responsible for keeping it up-to-date and reporting to their sponsor if any unfavorable information surfaces that could affect their continued eligibility for access to classified information or a sensitive position.

What are the Requirements for Obtaining a Top Secret Clearance?

A Top Secret clearance is required for federal jobs involving handling classified national security information. This level of clearance is required for professionals working in intelligence agencies, cyber defense, military intelligence gathering, and other high-level research and development projects. It is also required for employees of government contractors and cybersecurity firms who work on sensitive national security projects.

Clearance levels are determined on a case-by-case basis, and it is important to apply for the level of clearance that is necessary for your work. The investigative process is the same regardless of the clearance level you need, so it is important to be honest and disclose all relevant information on your application. The background investigation includes interviews with acquaintances and former coworkers, verification of information from a wide range of sources, and checks of criminal and financial records.

The scope of the background investigation is broader for higher-level clearances. A Tier 5 investigation is required for a Top Secret clearance, DOE “Q” access authorization, and some positions that require access to Sensitive Compartmented Information (SCI). In October 2016, the Tier 5 replaced the Single Scope Background Investigation (SSBI).

A background investigation can take anywhere from 6 to 9 months, depending on the complexity of the case. There is an opportunity to rebut and appeal unfavorable decisions. The rebuttal and appeal process is different for federal civilian employees, military personnel, and those with access to SCI, but all procedures adhere to the requirements of Executive Order 12968.

What are the Benefits of Obtaining a Top Secret Clearance?

As the name implies, Top Secret clearance enables access to information that would cause exceptionally grave damage if it were disclosed without authorization. Clearance holders have a unique opportunity to play a crucial role in protecting the country’s interests, and it is an impressive credential that is valued by employers.

In addition to being highly sought-after by government agencies and cybersecurity firms, Top Secret clearance offers job seekers a number of benefits. For one, it can significantly expedite the hiring process by allowing employees to begin work in days rather than months while waiting for their background investigation to be cleared up or completed.

Another benefit of obtaining a Top Secret clearance is that it can open the door to many different career opportunities in the InfoSec and cybersecurity industry. Whether working on sensitive intelligence analysis or policy development, these professionals are often well-paid and can advance within their roles to gain leadership positions in cybersecurity operations or advanced research.

Lastly, Top Secret clearance can also provide candidates with many opportunities to work overseas. In some cases, it is necessary for clearance holders to travel abroad to complete their duties in a country with a different security classification system or to work alongside colleagues who have a Top Secret clearance. For these reasons, it is important for candidates to know their eligibility for reciprocity (or a “cross-over” of their security clearance) before beginning the application process.

What are the Risks of Obtaining a Top Secret Clearance?

Top Secret Clearance opens up a lot more opportunities in the Cybersecurity field and allows you to contribute to national security efforts. It can help you get hired by government agencies, defense contractors, and intelligence organizations. It also enables you to get advanced cybersecurity training and certifications that can increase your salary. Clearance holders are required to follow the need-to-know principle and are subject to stringent physical and technical security measures. Failure to follow these rules may result in termination or revocation of clearance.

There is a lot of information that needs to be verified during the background investigation process for Tier 5 clearances. This can slow down the process. It is important to provide accurate, detailed information on your clearance application (SF86 or SF85P) to avoid delays in the investigation.

The criteria for granting security clearances vary by federal agency, but they generally include consideration of the individual’s allegiance to the United States and foreign influence, financial considerations, and criminal conduct and outside activities. In addition to these factors, investigators look at psychological conditions, drug and alcohol use, and a person’s reputation. The most common issues in clearance cases decided by the Defense Office of Hearings and Appeals are related to Guideline F, Financial Considerations, which accounts for 50 percent of all denied or revoked clearances.