Ariel Frogge

NACI (National Agency Check with Inquiries) Background Check Explained

If you’re looking to apply for a federal position, here’s some information you need to know about the application process for a NACI background check.

NACI (National Agency Check with Inquiries) Background Check Explained

In today's rapidly evolving world, ensuring individuals' safety and security is paramount. In this context, National Agency Check with Inquiries (NACI) background checks play a crucial role in various sectors, including government employment, federal contracts, and access to classified information. In this discussion, we will explore what exactly NACI background checks entail, why they are necessary, and the requirements involved. Whether you are an employer seeking to understand the process or an individual navigating the intricacies of NACI checks, this exploration will provide you with a comprehensive understanding of this vital aspect of safeguarding our communities.

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What is a NACI Background Check?

The National Agency Check with Inquiries (NACI) background check is a fundamental and mandatory investigation for all prospective Federal employees. This essential process involves thoroughly examining an individual's background, encompassing the past five years, through written inquiries and records searches. By scrutinizing specific areas of an applicant's history, the NACI aims to comprehensively understand their background, ensuring the integrity and security of the Federal workforce.

What are the Steps of a NACI Background Check?

Before applying for a government position, it is crucial to comprehend the intricacies of government background checks, particularly the National Agency Check with Inquiries (NACI). The NACI background check is a foundational step for all prospective Federal employees, requiring a meticulous examination of their background over the past five years.

We’ll explore the various steps involved in a NACI background check, shedding light on the specific areas that undergo scrutiny. By gaining insight into this process, you will be better equipped to navigate the pre-application phase and ensure compliance with the requirements, thus increasing your chances of securing a government position.

Applicant Suitability

Let's provide a comprehensive overview of how government agencies determine applicant suitability. Suitability assessments do not solely measure an individual's qualifications for the job; they are conducted separately. They focus on evaluating an individual's integrity and responsibility. These assessments categorize applicants into specific background check processes based on the role's demands.

Following a job offer, the government first determines whether the position is designated as sensitive or non-sensitive. This classification considers whether the role entails privileged access to systems, data, or controlled processes where misuse could cause harm. Alternatively, non-sensitive positions may be more ordinary or clerical.

For non-sensitive roles, they fall into three categories: Low, Moderate, or High-Risk roles. The level of risk corresponds to the potential damage that an employee's misconduct could inflict on the agency's work and reputation. Misconduct in high-risk roles can significantly impact the agency's ability to provide safe public service. The classification determines the background check procedure.

Low-risk roles require a National Agency Check with Inquiries (NACI). The NACI entails examining criminal records, conducting credit checks, and sending written inquiries to previous employers, educational institutions, landlords, and personal references.

Moderate-risk roles undergo a Minimum Background Investigation (MBI). The MBI encompasses the essential components of the NACI but also mandates an in-person interview between the background investigator and the applicant. Instead of written inquiries, investigators may opt for conducting phone calls with employers and references.

High-risk positions entail a complete Background Investigation (BI). The BI includes a comprehensive review of prior employment and education, extending the lookback period for all records to five years. In addition, in-person interviews are conducted with references.

It is important to note that if you aspire to work in a sensitive position, a separate process exists for obtaining the necessary security clearances.


Security Clearance

Certain government positions inherently involve handling classified information, making it imperative to protect this information from unauthorized disclosure to the public or foreign adversaries. The leakage of classified information poses a significant risk to national security and can have far-reaching consequences for government operations.

To ensure security, applicants being considered for sensitive roles must undergo a separate and more rigorous vetting process. This process begins once the applicant receives a conditional offer and submits the required Standard Forms. But how exactly does it work?

The sponsoring agency responsible for hiring the applicant carefully reviews the specific position and determines the level of security clearance required for that role. Higher-level clearances necessitate more comprehensive background checks. There are three critical levels of clearance to be aware of:

1. Confidential: Disclosure of information at this level could potentially harm US national security.
2. Secret: Disclosure of information at this level would cause significant harm.
3. Top Secret: Disclosure of information at this level would result in "exceptionally grave" harm.

At the highest echelons of government secrecy, additional subsets within the Top Secret classification, such as Sensitive Compartmented Information (SCI). Access to TS-SCI information demands additional vetting beyond regular Top Secret clearance.

Once the sponsoring agency classifies the position and determines the required clearance level, the investigation is referred to the relevant government agency, most commonly the Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency (DCSA). The DCSA, or the appropriate agency, then undertakes the comprehensive background investigation process to assess the applicant's eligibility for the required security clearance.

Process for Adjudicating Security Clearances

When the government evaluates an individual for a security clearance, a comprehensive examination of their history spans several years. The depth of this investigation varies based on the level of clearance required. For instance, a Top Secret investigation delves further into an applicant's past than a Confidential investigation.

Confidential and Secret investigations typically have a lookback period of five years and involve the National Agency Check with Law and Credit. On the other hand, Top Secret clearances necessitate the Single Scope Background Investigation, which examines the most recent ten years of an individual's life. Ultimately, the objective of these investigations is straightforward: to determine whether someone possesses the trustworthiness and stability necessary to uphold government secrecy.

Recognizing that these reviews are highly subjective, unlike background checks conducted in the private sector, is essential. The factors that disqualify individuals for clearance may vary from case to case. Currently, the law specifies 13 distinct areas of investigation when granting clearances. These areas include loyalty and allegiance to the United States, the impact of foreign influences, foreign preferences, sexual behavior, personal conduct, finances and debts, alcohol consumption, substance misuse, mental health concerns, past criminal conduct, handling of protected information, activities outside of work, and prior misuse of information technology.

While honesty and a forthright attitude towards disclosing information can simplify the clearance process, no definitive rules guarantee who will pass or fail this type of background check. Without clearance, an applicant's conditional offer may be revoked.

What Agencies Conduct NACI Background Checks for Government Employees?

The responsibility for conducting government employee background checks has undergone a recent change. For many years, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) and its sub-department, the National Background Investigations Bureau, held primary responsibility for this task.

However, since 2019, there has been a shift in this responsibility. The newly-established Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency (DCSA), operating under the Department of Defense (DOD), has taken over the task of background checks. This transition was aimed at leveraging the additional resources within the DOD to establish a more efficient system and address staffing shortages.

While the DCSA is responsible for conducting most government background checks, there are exceptions to this rule. For instance, if you apply for a position within the Executive Branch classified as "sensitive" or requiring a security clearance, the DCSA does not have jurisdiction. In such cases, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) takes charge of these investigations. Similarly, agencies like the FBI and the CIA typically handle background checks directly for prospective employees.

What Standard Forms are Required for a NACI Background Check?

Upon receiving a conditional job offer from the government, the background check and security clearance adjudication processes can commence once you provide the government with responses to a series of inquiries. These inquiries are encapsulated in questionnaires referred to as Standard Forms (SF). The specific SF form you need to complete depends on the role you are seeking, and they include the following:

SF-85 (Questionnaire for Non-Sensitive Positions): This concise document is the initial step for a NACI background check. It is exclusively used for Low Risk, non-sensitive positions.

SF-85P (Questionnaire for Public Trust Positions): This form triggers the Minimum Background Investigation for Moderate Risk positions. In specific departments, an additional form called SF-85P-S may be required, which includes supplementary questions.

SF-86 (Questionnaire for National Security Positions): This comprehensive form initiates a full Background Investigation for High-Risk positions and is also used for Confidential, Secret, and Top-Secret clearance.

These questionnaires will request you to voluntarily disclose a broad range of information, which the investigating agent will subsequently utilize for follow-up inquiries and investigations.

Assessing Potential Drug Use or Burdensome Personal Debt

When completing the SF-85 or the SF-86, applicants will encounter significantly more probing and personal questions than those typically asked in the private sector. It can be a surprise to be directly asked about past illegal drug usage or to disclose personal debt obligations. However, this information is crucial in assessing an individual's trustworthiness, especially for the most sensitive positions.

Applicants can expect questions regarding their use, possession, or supply of illegal drugs within the past year or over an extended period. The consideration process may also consider a history of financial irresponsibility or poor debt management, which could involve a credit check. It's important to note that past drug use or previous bankruptcy does not automatically disqualify someone from a government job. Background investigators thoroughly evaluate individual circumstances and may discuss with applicants to gain further insight into each reported incident.

Honesty is the Best Policy

Completing the Standard Forms can be intimidating, even for individuals applying to low-risk positions. However, being as open and honest as possible throughout the process is crucial. While applicants may fear that certain information could lead to disqualification, it is essential to remember that dishonesty will inevitably result in rejection. In the case of high-level security clearances, providing false information or tampering with records can even lead to potential criminal charges.

Government background checks are comprehensive, and investigators meticulously examine the consistency between the information provided on the Standard Forms and the facts. Omitting an event or piece of information is often more likely to be a reason for rejection than the event itself. Demonstrating your honesty and integrity by embracing this process and being forthcoming with the required information is a testament to your character.

What are the Citizenship Requirements for Government Work?

As part of the application and NACI background check process, it is necessary to verify your citizenship status. Naturalized citizenship fulfills this requirement. Non-citizens may be eligible to apply but must obtain separate work authorization.

What About Individuals With Dual Citizenship?

Dual citizenship, where individuals possess legal status in both the United States and a foreign country, introduces unique factors that require careful consideration during vetting. As a result, dual citizens applying for federal employment undergo an individualized review, which may lead to some delays. The specific considerations typically include the following:

Possession of a foreign nation's passport: The presence of a passport from another country is assessed as part of the review.

Service in a foreign nation's armed forces: The involvement in a foreign country's military forces is considered during the evaluation.

Residence in another country as a condition of citizenship: If living in another country is a requirement to maintain foreign citizenship, it becomes a point of consideration.

Ties to the other nation: The extent and nature of individuals' connections with their non-US citizenship country are evaluated.

Suppose you are a dual citizen preparing to apply for federal employment. In that case, renouncing your non-US citizenship or surrendering your passport may be necessary as part of the process. This requirement ensures compliance with the government's standards and regulations.

How Would Foreign Residency Affect My NACI Background Check?

For most job opportunities within the federal government, applicants who have resided outside the United States for more than two of the last five years are generally not considered. Certain agencies may have even stricter criteria, requiring applicants to have spent at most three out of the preceding five years outside the country. However, there are exceptions to these requirements for individuals serving in the armed forces, government contractors, and participating in approved study abroad programs. These exceptions allow flexibility in considering candidates with unique circumstances or specialized roles.

How Long Does a NACI Government Employee Background Check Take?

The government prioritizes thoroughness over speed regarding candidate selection, particularly for sensitive positions. Consequently, the federal vetting process can be considerably longer, especially in comparison to background checks conducted in the private sector. In private employment, a comprehensive screening typically takes a few weeks unless there is a backlog within the organization. However, within the federal government, the timelines often extend to several months.

Even for low-level and non-sensitive positions that only require a NACI (National Agency Check with Inquiries) check, the process can take up to three months. For individuals seeking a Top-Secret clearance, the duration may stretch as long as nine months, with rare cases finishing in less than two months. Any inaccuracies or discrepancies found during the process can further prolong the timeline. NACI background checks may be expedited for government contractors since the contracting company may conduct its own vetting, though certain exceptions apply for sensitive assignments.

It is crucial to provide accurate information when completing your Standard Forms. Have a clear understanding of what the government will likely uncover and be prepared to provide explanations for any unusual circumstances. Select your references thoughtfully. Collaborate with local law enforcement to obtain a fingerprint card, which you can submit to your sponsoring agency. The most effective way to expedite the process is to respond comprehensively.

Final Thoughts on NACI Background Checks

NACI background checks, even for low-level and non-sensitive positions within the federal government, can be a time-consuming process lasting up to three months. Individuals must be aware of the potential information that may arise during the investigation and be ready to address any unusual circumstances or discrepancies. However, for those concerned about what might be uncovered before applying for a federal job, resources are available to help prepare for a NACI background check. Platforms like PeopleWhiz offer comprehensive background check services that can assist individuals in understanding and managing their public records, allowing them to be better prepared for the vetting process and address any issues proactively.

By utilizing such tools, individuals can better understand their background information and take appropriate steps to resolve any discrepancies or inaccuracies. This proactive approach can help streamline the NACI background check process and improve their chances of successful federal employment applications.

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