Skip to main content


It’s important to understand exactly who and what determine clearance statuses in the United States. The short answer is the Bureau of Human Resources1. While those working in the Department of State are the ones who primarily need security clearances, it’s the Bureau of Human Resources that assigns them.

How do they do this?

First, an investigation of the applicant’s background is conducted by the Bureau of Human Resources. As you might imagine, this is not your typical background check. It encompasses far more than criminal history and ultimately determines if the person is trustworthy with confidential and sensitive materials, holds no relationships that would put the government in jeopardy and is loyal beyond any doubt to the U.S.2

As for the level of clearance that’s assigned, the person’s job function determines the corresponding access they will be given1. It’s also important to note that there are three levels of security clearance in the U.S: Confidential, Secret and Top Secret. Each level provides personnel with the minimum amount of information they need to fulfill their job responsibilities:

  • Confidential
    This is the lowest tier of security clearance. It offers those with this clearance the ability to handle sensitive information and materials that may contain national security information, though they must be reinvestigated every 15 years.3
  • Secret
    As the middle tier of security clearances, the Secret level allows people to deal with information that is vital to U.S. national security. As a result, those who’ve been granted access must undergo another background check every 10 years.3
  • Top Secret (TS)
    As the highest level of security clearance, Top Secret access requires people to be able to handle Sensitive Compartmented Information (SCI), which is sometimes considered its own security level. To obtain this level of clearance, individuals must go through a Single Scope Background Investigation (SSBI). TS clearance can take up to 18 months to receive.4 They must undergo another check every five years.

These three levels of security clearances are the standard within government jobs. However, there are additional levels and clearances that people handling highly specialized and unique information can gain. For example, government professionals working with NATO countries can earn a NATO Secret (NS) clearance level, allowing them to protect sensitive information concerning the interests of NATO.4

Each clearance level becomes more extensive, requiring more advanced background checks, and gives the person more responsibility within their role. Having a better understanding of the U.S. clearance levels can lend a stronger comprehension of the roles in national security and how they operate.

  1. Retrieved on April 25, 2017, from
  2. Retrieved on April 25, 2017, from
  3. Retrieved on April 25, 2017, from
  4. Retrieved on April 25, 2017, from