Happy hour started early Friday when the gang left the Pentagon, but you paced yourself and figured it was safe to make the same dull drive back home through northern Virginia. Suddenly, blue and red lights flashed in your rear-view mirror. The officer said he could smell alcohol on your breath. You blew into the Breathalyzer. Handcuffs. Arraignment. Forget your next court date. Did you just sabotage your security clearance?

Mitigating factors

More than 4 million federal government jobs require workers to pass an extensive background check and have access to sensitive or classified information. The State Department probes personal lives, financial histories and criminal records to draw a character profile that helps military and intelligence agencies determine whether someone is a security risk. Investigators want to assess a person’s loyalty to the United States, honesty, discretion and judgment.

An arrest for driving under the influence could affect your ability to obtain and maintain a security clearance because it raises questions about a person’s reliability and trustworthiness. The State Department considers circumstances that could mitigate security concerns:

  • Time. Your arrest occurred years ago without any recurring offenses.
  • Abstinence or responsible use. You acknowledged alcoholism or alcohol abuse and provide documentation of your efforts to overcome the problem.
  • Counseling. You are progressing in a treatment program such as Alcoholics Anonymous and have received a favorable prognosis with no relapses.

A first-offense DUI is unlikely to result in having your security clearance revoked, but it is important to tell your security officer about the arrest. Failing to disclose it on your initial application or during a renewal investigation could betray an attempt to hide information and raise even more questions. Most importantly, obey any court-ordered counseling, driving classes or probation terms.

Educate yourself

You work hard for the government and take pride in helping serve your country. A slip up should not ruin your security status or career, but it is important to be transparent and serious about getting your life back on track.

Educate yourself on the details of your case and what it takes to acquire and preserve a confidential or top-secret security clearance. The episode is too serious, and the stakes are too high, to hope it will all go away.