Once you have been sponsored for a clearance, your critical first step is to complete the SF86 form (“EQip” when online) fully and accurately. You can download a copy of the most current SF86 form here.
Most folks who go through this process find themselves facing one of more of three problems. First, there’s information you simply do not recall and will have significant difficulty researching. Second, this form is ambiguous and you may misunderstand a question. Third, we all have to look in the mirror in the morning. Sometimes the SF86 requires that you disclose embarrassing aspects of your past that you don’t really think of as your past, or who you are today, or that you’ve “rephrased” in your mind; your memory of the matter may be different than what the documentation shows or the recollections of others involved at the time.
If your SF86 proves to be inaccurate, or even seems to be inaccurate, you have opened yourself up to the charge that you have not been candid and forthcoming. That’s a violation of Guideline E of the Adjudicative Guidelines. Unlike most of the Adjudicate Guidelines, which instruct that a given situation or conduct “could” raise a security concern and “may be” disqualifying,” failing to provide full, frank and truthful answers “will normally result” in an unfavorable clearance action.” You really want to avoid a Guideline E charge.
The First Rule: Tell the Truth
The first rule, which is to tell the truth, sounds easy enough in theory. Usually those involved in some past event can generally agree on the facts. But sometimes people have different recollections of what is true. The rule of thumb here is to assume that the adjudicator has or will get “the other side of the story.” If you do not fully disclose from the start, the “other side” will be believed over what you recollect and believe.
When the facts surrounding some past event could be embarrassing if related by someone else involved, you should be the first to bring this out. Your response should make sense of the different views and recollections for your benefit and for the benefit of the process.
Read the question carefully and then read it again. Many of our clients come to us for help because they have misread or misunderstood a question. “I guess I was in a hurry and just missed that word,” they say. Once an error is detected, the working assumption will be that the omission or inaccuracy is intentional. No functionary is going to give you a pass, even if you later have a convincing explanation. “Above my pay grade,” they would say, meaning that there is a process to consider your explanation and it’s not one that first-line reviewers have the authority to bypass, no matter how convincing the explanation seems.
Other Rules For Completing the SF86
Every situation is different and it’s not feasible in a note of this size to cover the range of issues and situations you may face in answering this large and complex form. But a few general rules are worth noting, because we see them violated all the time.
Err against your own self interest and disclose in some manner.
- Better to report it and explain it than explain why you didn’t report it in the first instance. In fact, we have found that some questions prove to be more useful as litmus tests for truth than for the information they ostensibly seek.
- Example: Why you left a job. The government usually doesn’t care if you left a job because of a dispute with management that didn’t rise to an incident report in your security file. If an employer is sponsoring you, they either know that things were not all roses for you at a prior job or really don’t care to know. So reporting a bad ending is no big deal. But not reporting the poor ending to a prior employment relationship in the SF86 can be disastrous to your eligibility for clearance.
Don’t make a mountain out of a molehill.
- Questions are usually looking for specific mountains and not the molehills.
- Example: Foreign Contacts. SF86 Question 19 asks about foreign citizens with whom you had “close and/or continuing contact” and to whom you “are bound by affection, influence, common interests, and/or obligation.”. That does not include the cab driver with a foreign accent, foreign classmates , or telephone tech support. You should not clutter your response with information that is not responsive to the question.
Choose your words carefully, understanding how they will be taken.
- You don’t want to be misunderstood.
- Example: Dealing with Debt. Suppose you had been timely on your car payments and drove a car to a dealership and handed them the keys when you could no longer make the payments. You’ve acted responsibly in the face of a difficult situation. You did not continue to use the car without paying for it or fail to offer to surrender it or refuse to surrender it. Accordingly, you should not report that the car was “repossessed.” It was “surrendered” by mutual agreement.
Don’t make it up or speculate.
- We’re not computers and we do forget things over time. If you do not recall, just say so.
Getting Professional Help
Threading the path involves risk. You want to minimize the risks that you will be charged with false answers or lack of candor. You want to avoid reporting facts in a way that hurts how you are viewed if there’s a better way to report the facts. You want to avoid so burying the investigation process in unnecessary information that your file is set aside in favor of more manageable applications.
We are very familiar with these forms and with problems that arise in how they are completed. We can counsel you in completing the SF86 to thread your path. We can help you work through a focused question or two or three in a telephone consultation. But we generally recommend a face to face meeting when feasible. After you’ve read and considered the form and are ready to complete it, if you have doubts or concerns about how to answer some questions. In that event, you can make an appointment with us to discuss your concerns and proposed responses.