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Some federal agencies require summer, term-time, and post-graduate applicants to undergo security clearances. Agencies that historically have required security clearances include DOJ, the CIA, and the Department of Defense. For DOJ (including U.S. Attorneys' Offices), the FBI runs the security clearance check. This background investigation is rather routine for summer work (fingerprint check and questionnaire), and much more extensive for full-time employment — with the FBI checking references, former employers, coworkers, friends, neighbors, landlords, institutions of higher education, and credit/military/tax/police records. While this process almost always runs smoothly and is completed without a problem, security clearances for DOJ and other federal agencies have occasionally taken long periods of time and have proven a major obstacle to a few applicants.
There are certain relatively common factors that are likely to slow down a clearance. Security clearances can take longer to receive if students have dual citizenship, and dual citizenship with certain countries (such as Iran) can sometimes make security clearance virtually impossible to obtain. Marriage to a non-citizen can also slow down a security clearance. Additionally, unless students were participating in a U.S. government program (such as the military or the Peace Corps), those who have lived outside of the U.S. for many years in the past decade may find it harder to receive clearance, as may students who have traveled extensively in countries listed on the State Department’s “state sponsors of terrorism” watch list. At times, a clearance seems to get hung up for no reason at all.
Students have frequently expressed anxiety about whether minor drug experimentation, particularly during their college years, will bar them from receiving internships or post-graduate positions at DOJ. Drug use and past drug use continue to be taken seriously by DOJ. This is a particularly difficult issue: admitting to even minor drug use may lead to rejection, and lying is committing perjury.
Although DOJ currently considers any prior drug use on a case-by-case basis, historically, a clear "one-year rule" has existed. Applicants who have used narcotics less than one year prior to their application generally will be barred automatically from employment. Any drug use that occurred outside of that one-year timeframe is considered on an individual basis. While there are no written rules for how much drug experimentation is acceptable, limited admitted experimental use of marijuana during college (i.e. under 5 times) usually will not automatically preclude you from being hired. Of key concern to DOJ is any current drug use, use during law school, and repeated use of any "hard" narcotics, such as cocaine.
It is critical to note, however, that each U.S. Attorney’s office independently formulates its own policies regarding prior drug use by applicants. There is no centrally organized, universal U.S. Attorney’s Office policy towards past drug use. For instance, in the past, an HLS student was turned down for a security clearance by the Colorado U.S. Attorney’s Office because he admitted to trying marijuana once on an experimental basis. At DOJ, there is an absolute post-bar prohibition on any drug use, including marijuana.
In other agencies and departments, policies can vary. A recent change in the FBI's policy requires that applicants not have used marijuana in the past three years, or other drugs in the past ten years, while loosening restrictions on use prior to those periods. The CIA requires that applicants not have used illegal drugs within the past 12 months, and carefully evaluates any use prior to that year during medical and security processing.
Other key issues for the security check are any defaulted student loans, neglected financial obligations, failure to comply with intellectual property laws (particularly with respect to illegal downloading of music or video recordings), or failure to comply with tax laws. Failure to file or pay taxes may preclude a candidate from passing the background check. DOJ Honors Program candidates are specifically subject to a residency requirement. Candidates who have lived outside of the U.S. for two or more of the past five years may have difficulty being cleared. (Federal or military employees and their dependents, including Peace Corps volunteers, are exempted from this rule.) Lastly, in the past, a couple of students have been flagged for further questioning because of admitted use of prescribed antidepressant drugs to ensure that these drugs did not impair function at work. Such use is not in and of itself a bar to employment, but the additional inquiries may slow down the process, and the agency may ask you for permission to contact your physician.
If you are concerned about possible factors that may slow down your clearance, or you suspect that the process is taking longer than it should, contact OPIA right away. We can often get additional information for you, and it’s always best for us to know there may be a hold-up early in the process rather than at the last minute.
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