What Is Top Secret Clearance?

Top Secret clearance opens doors to employment with government agencies, defense contractors and cybersecurity firms. It enables professionals to work on cutting-edge projects and contribute to national security efforts.


Clearance holders must adhere to strict security protocols and confidentiality agreements. They also undergo periodic reinvestigations to maintain their clearance.

What is a Top Secret Clearance?

Generally speaking, a Top Secret clearance allows you to work with information that, if disclosed, could cause exceptionally grave damage to national security or organizational interests. Clearance holders must adhere to strict security protocols and follow the need-to-know principle, ensuring they have access to the information necessary for the performance of their duties. They are also subject to periodic reinvestigations, ensuring the accuracy of the information provided and that no new issues have arisen since their last clearance was issued.

For the most part, agencies issue clearances at three levels: Confidential, Secret, and Top Secret. The higher the clearance level, the more sensitive the information is, and the more rigorous the background investigation is. As publisher of Lawfare, David Priess points out on CNN’s “New Day,” Top Secret information is primarily intelligence gathered on adversaries, whether it be information about North Korea’s nuclear program or Russian military operations.

In addition to a rigorous background check, you can expect to undergo a polygraph examination. This test is designed to uncover inconsistencies in your story and identify potential security concerns that would disqualify you from obtaining a clearance. The results of your polygraph are compiled and reviewed by a Government adjudicator who will make a final decision on your clearance status. The process typically takes 6 to 9 months, and the FBI is responsible for conducting all background investigations for the top-secret level.

What are the requirements for obtaining a Top Secret Clearance?

Security clearance investigations are conducted to ensure that people who have access to classified information are trustworthy and meet other eligibility requirements. There are three levels of national security clearance: Confidential, Secret, and Top Secret. The higher the level, the more severe the impact of unauthorized disclosure. Clearance holders are expected to adhere to strict security protocols and only share information on a need-to-know basis. They must also undergo regular reinvestigations and sign non-disclosure agreements.

Getting a Top Secret clearance requires extensive background checks and investigation of your personal life and professional history, including education, employment, finances, criminal and civil legal issues, and family relationships. It also includes a polygraph exam, which tests your honesty and integrity by measuring physiological responses to questions. It takes months, or sometimes years, to complete.

There are exceptions to the lengthy process and you can be granted an interim or temporary clearance based on limited checks and the initiation of a PSI. You can then work on sensitive projects while the PSI is in progress. The final decision depends on the outcome of the PSI and other factors, such as the type of classified information you will be exposed to and how it is handled.

Once you are cleared, it is not for life. All national security clearances are subject to periodic reinvestigations, which can be every five or ten years. You must also report any changes in your personal status, such as marriage or foreign travel, as they could affect your eligibility for a clearance.

What is the difference between a Top Secret Clearance and a Secret Clearance?

In the InfoSec and Cybersecurity industry, the term Top Secret Clearance is often used to reference a certain level of security clearance that can only be granted by federal agencies. This security clearance grants authorized individuals access to classified information that is essential to national security. Clearance holders must sign non-disclosure agreements, undergo regular reinvestigations, and adhere to strict security protocols.

A Top Secret Clearance (TS) and a Sensitive Compartmented Information (SCI) are the two highest levels of security clearance available to government employees. This is a rigorous process that requires a more in-depth background investigation than a Secret clearance. The TS/SCI requires sponsorship from a Government agency and can include additional vetting requirements like a polygraph examination.

Those who hold a TS/SCI must complete a Single Scope Background Investigation (SSBI) for information related to counterterrorism and counterintelligence. The SSBI is a more thorough, detailed investigation than a Secret clearance and includes extensive interviews and review of credit history.

Generally, Top Secret clearance is the highest level of clearance required for federal jobs. A TS/SCI is also the only security clearance required for positions in which you would have access to classified information that has been designated as Sensitive Compartmented Information (SCI) or Restricted Data (RD). This type of clearance is typically reserved for high-level government officials, top security contractors, and intelligence community professionals.

What is the process for obtaining a Top Secret Clearance?

The process for obtaining a Top Secret Clearance is extensive and can take months or even years to complete. It is more intensive than the process for Confidential or Secret clearances, and requires a thorough examination of an individual’s entire life, including their personal history, employment records, financial issues, and criminal and civil legal history. Applicants are also subject to a polygraph exam, which assesses honesty and integrity by measuring physiological responses during a series of questions.

A Top Secret Clearance is granted to individuals who require access to information that could cause exceptionally grave damage to national security if it were released without authorization. This level of clearance is required for jobs that have access to Sensitive Compartmented Information (SCI) and certain DOE “Q” access authorizations. This level of clearance requires a Tier 5 investigation, which is more intensive than the Tier 3 or Tier 4 investigations.

All levels of security clearance are subject to periodic reinvestigations, which typically occur every five to ten years. During this time, an individual’s life circumstances are reviewed and if any issues arise that could impact their eligibility for the clearance, it is downgraded or revoked. To maintain their clearance, people in a clearance-requiring position must follow security protocols and adhere to the need-to-know principle, which ensures that they only access information that is necessary for performing their duties. They must also report any changes in their living situation to their security officer immediately, such as moving or having a new roommate.