Editor's note: In light of the recent posting of military documents by the website Wikileaks, and the subsequent investigation into just who had access and who could have leaked them, the CNN Security Brief wanted to know a little more about who has access to what secrets. We turned to James Curry, now a line producer at CNN International. Curry joined the Marine Corps at age 17 and served two years as an engineer, with one combat tour in Falluja, Iraq, in 2004, and three years as an embassy guard. He holds a B.S. in political science from Troy State University. He explains what's involved in getting top-secret clearance.
When we hear about someone having a top-secret security clearance, we think of that person having access to all of the nation’s secrets at the highest level. In reality, this is not the case. In order to gain access to classified material, one must have the appropriate level clearance and the “need to know.”
In fact, many people within the United States government hold top-secret security clearances and don’t have access to classified material. For example, most State Department diplomats hold security clearances at the top-secret level; this includes press officers and consular officials. However, most of the work these people do involves little to no classified information.
This leads to the questions: What is a security clearance? Who gets one? And how does the U.S. government go about granting them?
Security clearances can be granted on three levels: confidential, secret, and top secret. A clearance is granted based on the level of classified material a person may deal with while doing his or her job. Security clearances at the confidential and secret levels are relatively easy to obtain. Usually a minimal background check of state and local records is all that's required. If nothing serious turns up, the clearance is granted. It’s a pretty straightforward process. A face-to-face interview is not conducted.
The process of applying for and being granted a top-secret security clearance is more complicated. First, a lengthy government form is filled out. This form asks for personal information going back 10 years. This includes the names, addresses, and phone numbers of all family members and close friends, work history, places lived, criminal history, citizenship, and usually a space to explain any questionable incidents of the past. Secondly, anyone who applies for a top-secret clearance is required to submit fingerprints and be a U.S citizen.
After all of the administrative procedures are complete, an investigator interviews the applicant. The investigator will ask many of the same questions that were asked on the paperwork. He or she will also ask questions that will give a sense of the type of person the applicant is and how loyal he or she is to the United States.
Assuming the previous stages were satisfactory, the applicant's file will be sent to field agents. These agents will start verifying the information that was given on the paperwork and during the interview. Investigators will visit with family and friends, go to high schools, and often knock on neighbors’ doors to dig into a person’s background. This process could take several months, depending on what they come up with and how many different locations must be visited.
After the background investigation is complete, a final profile is compiled and sent to the clearance-granting agency. This is usually the Department of Defense or the Department of State, but could be any one of the alphabet soup of departments that fall under the U.S. government’s umbrella. Each agency is responsible for granting clearances to its potential employees and each has its own criteria.
It's important to note that the term "top secret" is not a blanket term given to classified material. The U.S. Government classifies material based on how damaging it could be to national security if released.