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How to obtain a security clearance as a federal or military worker

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In the aftermath of Monday's mass shooting at the Washington Navy Yard, officials have confirmed that the perpetrator of the crime, Aaron Alexis, carried a secret security clearance.

How and why people are able to obtain these levels of access to both information and physical locations is now being called into question by both Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Navy Secretary Ray Mabus.

Defense officials told the Associated Press Wednesday that Hagel is expected to order a sweeping review of security and access at all defense installations worldwide. In addition, Mabus is calling for two reviews of Navy bases and worker screening.

How, though, does one obtain a security clearance in this environment? According to information from ClearanceJobs.com, a job board for cleared federal and military workers, it's a multi-step process that takes time, energy, patience and sponsorship.

Anyone seeking security clearance of any type must be sponsored by either a federal agency or a cleared government contractor, the site says. An employee seeking clearance must already be gainfully employed by an agency before beginning the clearance process.

ClearanceJobs.com says that security clearances are issued to civilians, military personnel, federal workers and contractors mainly by the Department of Defense's Central Clearance Facility, which is located at Fort Meade. However, the Department of Internal Affairs, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency also issue clearances, among several others.

There are three main levels of security clearances for workers and contractors - confidential, secret and top secret - which require increased levels of investigation, background checks and scrutiny as access to more sensitive information and facilities is sought.

In this case, Alexis had been granted secret clearance, meaning that his background had likely been scrutinized for several months before clearance was given.

The process to obtain a security clearance, according to Clearance Jobs, begins when an employer asks its appropriate agency to begin a background check or investigation into the employee they deem to need access to restricted, sensitive facilities or documents. Checks of police records, criminal history and credit are then carried out, in most cases.

For higher clearances, a candidates deep background is often investigated, including family history, a one-on-one interview or even a polygraph test can be ordered.

Once granted, a worker's security clearance is either active, current or expired. An active clearance is defined as one that is currently being used; current means that a security clearance has expired but is eligible to be reinstated; an expired one means that clearance is no longer available and cannot be reinstated.

ClearanceJobs.com, citing government data, says that obtaining a clearance took an average of 99 days for top secret candidates and 52 days for secret ones.

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