Security Clearance vs Secret Clearance?

by | General | 1 comment

Navigating the world of security clearances can be confusing, especially when terms like “security clearance” and “secret clearance” get tossed around. Whether you’re eyeing a government job or a position with a defense contractor, understanding these distinctions is crucial.

In essence, a security clearance is a broad term encompassing various levels of access, with secret clearance being one of the most common types. Knowing the differences can help you better prepare for the application process and understand the responsibilities that come with each level. Let’s dive into what sets these clearances apart and why it matters for your career.

Understanding Security Clearances

Types of Security Clearances

You need to understand the different levels of security clearances to determine the access required for specific government jobs or roles with defense contractors. The main security clearance levels include:

  1. Confidential: Grants access to information that could cause damage to national security if disclosed without authorization. Typical roles involve access to sensitive but low-impact data.
  2. Secret: Grants access to information that could cause serious damage to national security if disclosed. Commonly required for military positions and specific government roles.
  3. Top Secret: Grants access to information that could cause exceptionally grave damage to national security if disclosed. Necessary for high-level government positions and roles involving sensitive operations.
  4. Sensitive Compartmented Information (SCI): Refers to classified information concerning specific national security activities. Access requires additional background checks beyond the Top Secret level.
  5. Special Access Programs (SAP): Involves highly classified information that requires strict access controls and additional safeguards. Only individuals with a need-to-know are granted this clearance.

The Importance of Security Screenings

Security screenings are crucial in the clearance process since they ensure the integrity and reliability of personnel with access to classified information. Screening evaluations include:

  1. Background Check: Investigates your criminal history, financial records, employment history, and personal references. High-level clearances often require more extensive checks spanning several years.
  2. Polygraph Examination: Used for Top Secret and higher access levels. A polygraph test measures your physiological responses to questions about your background and potential security concerns.
  3. Personal Interviews: Conducted to verify information from your background check. Interviews may include family members, friends, neighbors, and colleagues to gain a comprehensive understanding of your character.
  4. Continuous Evaluation: An ongoing process for those with active clearances. Monitors for changes in behavior, financial status, or other risk factors that could affect your eligibility.

Understanding the different types of clearances and the importance of security screenings is essential for navigating the application process and maintaining eligibility for roles requiring access to national security information.

Explaining Secret Clearance

Requirements for Obtaining Secret Clearance

Obtaining a Secret clearance involves several key steps. To start, you must undergo a background investigation conducted by the Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency (DCSA). This investigation includes checks on your criminal history, financial records, personal references, and past employment. Additionally, interviews with individuals who know you well help verify your suitability for access to classified information.

You must also complete the Standard Form 86 (SF-86), which is an extensive questionnaire covering your personal and professional history. Accuracy and honesty in this form are critical, as discrepancies can delay or result in denial of clearance. Participation in a security briefing that discusses your responsibilities and the consequences of unauthorized disclosures is required before being granted Secret clearance.

The Scope of Secret Clearance

Secret clearance grants you access to information that, if disclosed without authorization, could cause serious damage to national security. This level of clearance is necessary for many military and civilian roles within the Department of Defense (DoD) and other federal agencies.

Classified information under Secret clearance includes operational plans, intelligence assessments, and certain military communications. While not as sensitive as Top Secret data, Secret-level information still offers significant insight into national defense strategies and operations. Therefore, stringent protocols are in place to ensure only authorized individuals gain access.

Comparing Security and Secret Clearances

Key Differences

Security clearances encompass various levels, each defining the access granted to classified information. Secret clearance is one specific level within this broader spectrum. Secret clearances typically pertain to information vital to national security that might cause serious damage if disclosed. However, other levels, like Confidential, address less sensitive information, while Top Secret includes highly sensitive data with severe impact potential. Top Secret often involves additional screening protocols compared to Secret clearance.

Similarities in Clearance Processes

Both security clearances and Secret clearances require thorough background checks. This process includes reviewing personal, financial, and criminal history. Completing Standard Form 86 (SF-86) is mandatory for both, collecting detailed information about your activities, relationships, and affiliations. Security briefings are conducted across all clearance levels to ensure you understand the responsibilities and consequences of managing classified information. Throughout all levels, continuous evaluation maintains the integrity of the clearance, ensuring ongoing eligibility.

Impact on Professional Opportunities

Careers Requiring Security Clearance

Many careers in government, defense, and intelligence sectors require security clearance. Positions in agencies like the Department of Defense (DoD), Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and National Security Agency (NSA) often demand these clearances. Defense contractors working with classified information also need security clearance. Roles can range from cyber security experts and intelligence analysts to special operations personnel and aerospace engineers. By holding security clearance, you gain access to an array of jobs that are otherwise inaccessible.

Increased Access and Responsibilities

Holding security clearance brings increased access to sensitive information and greater responsibilities. Secret clearance allows you to access information that could cause serious damage to national security if disclosed. Security clearances like Top Secret provide even higher access levels. Enhanced responsibilities follow as you must rigorously adhere to protocols for handling classified information and report any potential breaches. Employing professionals with security clearances ensures the safeguarding of national security details.


Understanding the distinctions between different levels of security clearances is crucial for anyone pursuing a career in government, defense, or intelligence sectors. Holding a security clearance not only opens doors to a myriad of job opportunities but also comes with significant responsibilities. It’s essential to strictly adhere to handling protocols and report any breaches to protect classified information and national security. Whether aiming for a Confidential, Secret, or Top Secret clearance, being well-informed about the requirements and implications can greatly enhance your professional trajectory.


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