Security Clearance Levels for Federal Employees

By John V. Berry, Esq.,

As lawyers practicing in the area of security clearance law, we often receive questions from federal employees about the different types of security clearances that exist and their differences. This article briefly touches upon many of the different types of security clearances and increased classification levels for federal employees. There are several variations and types of security clearances, and some are not truly considered security clearances, but they range from Public Trust positions to Yankee White clearances on the spectrum. The following is a listing of clearances/classifications ranging from least scrutiny to most scrutiny.


Public Trust Positions / Clearance / Suitability

Generally, a public trust clearance or classification is one of the lowest forms of clearance issued to federal employees. It is not always considered to be a true security clearance, but is often referred to as a classification. Generally, the employee applying for a public trust clearance would need to have access to sensitive, but not classified information. Obtaining a public trust clearance generally requires the completion of the Form SF-85 or SF-85P (for financial positions). The threshold for approval is lower than a typical security clearance, which requires a full background investigation in order to determine suitability or eligibility to hold a public trust position. Public trust investigations generally focus on the last 7 years of an individual’s life. Generally, this type of clearance is held by many federal law enforcement officers and federal health care workers.

Confidential Clearance

Confidential clearances are issued to federal employees that have access to information that could reasonably be expected to cause potential damage to national security if disclosed to unauthorized individuals. A Confidential clearance is similar, in some respects, to a public trust position or public trust clearance. A Confidential clearance requires a NACLC investigation going back 7 years from the applicant’s record. It is renewed every 15 years. An SF-86 is completed for this clearance.

Secret Clearance

A Secret clearance is the next level of security clearance and the most common type of security clearance. A secret clearance is issued to federal employees needing access to information that could reasonably be expected to cause “serious” damage to national security if disclosed to unauthorized individuals. A secret clearance is renewed every 10 years. A “L” clearance issued by the Department of Energy is usually seen as equivalent to a Secret clearance. An SF-86 is completed for this clearance.

Top Secret Clearance

It is harder to obtain and maintain a Top Secret (TS) clearance than a Secret clearance as the standards are higher. A TS clearance holder will have access to data that affects national security in a significant or “exceptionally grave” manner. A TS clearance requires that a Single Scope Background Investigation (SSBI) be conducted, which involves a Personal Subject Interview with the applicant, along with interviews of references, neighbors, employers, spouses and others. A “Q” clearance issued by the Department of Energy is equivalent to a TS clearance. A TS clearance is renewed every 5 years. An SF-86 is completed for this clearance.

Top Secret / Sensitive Compartmented Information (TS/SCI)

The standards for obtaining Sensitive Compartmented Information (SCI) access are higher than those for a TS clearance. SCI allows access to separate compartments of classified information. SCI access is only available after an individual has been subject to an SSBI. A TS clearance with SCI (TS/SCI) is often regarded as one of the highest levels of security clearance given to employees. To obtain SCI eligibility, a cleared federal employee must be nominated for SCI access and approved by the federal agency (i.e. Central Adjudication Facility or CAF) controlling access to the information at issue. There are generally 3 levels for SCI: (1) SSBI without a polygraph examination; (2) SSBI with a Counter-Intelligence polygraph examination (CI Poly) SSBI; and (3) SSBI with a Full Scope (Lifestyle) polygraph examination. The compartmented process means that each compartment is separated from each other. Access to SCI is granted on an individual case basis for time periods that vary.

Special Access Programs

Special Access Programs (SAP) are different than SCI compartments. SAPs are a security program established pursuant to Executive Order 12958 which apply extraordinary security measures to protect extremely sensitive information. SAPs involve security protocols that provide highly classified information, along with safeguards and access restrictions which exceed those used for normal classified information. SAPs may impose stronger investigative or adjudicative requirements or even non-disclosure agreements. There are 2 types of SAPs, an acknowledged SAP and unacknowledged SAP. An acknowledged SAP may be known, but the specifics within the SAP will be classified. In contrast, an unacknowledged SAP, or an unacknowledged portion of an acknowledged SAP will be made known only to the personnel properly authorized to receive the information; personnel with a need to know.

Yankee White Clearance

The term “Yankee White” refers to a background check given to those federal employees and contractors that have access to the President and Vice-President. The requirements for the granting of this type of clearance are stringent and involve extensive background investigation. Regulations concerning Yankee White clearance designation procedures are listed here.

When a federal employee is facing security clearance issues it is important to obtain legal advice and potential representation.  Our law firm advises individuals in the security clearance process. We can be contacted at or by telephone at (703) 668-0070. Our Facebook page is located at