“Plethora” of investigators

I was wondering about the status of my security clearance, so I called the Security Clearance Support Help Desk at the State Department (yes, that is a thing). I got voice mail, so I left a message, and wasn’t expecting to get a return phone call, because, you know, it’s the government. Well, at 7:00 this evening, they called me back, surprise surprise!

The status is that the background investigation is still ongoing. I said that the investigator who interviewed me (for seven hours) had submitted his report. Yes, was the answer, but there is a “plethora of investigators on your case” (direct quote).

His use of the word “plethora” struck me as unusual. Why would he use that word? How many more than “several” is a plethora? Now I am in paranoia mode. I am imagining a dimly-lit, smoky back room crowded with overweight, middle-aged men pouring over my past tax returns, blog posts, love letters, airplane tickets, and hotel receipts, looking for evidence of unpatriotic or suspicious behavior. “A-ha!” one yells triumphantly, waving a receipt from a scooter rental agency in Victoria, British Columbia. “He didn’t rent a helmet! Communist!”

Medical Clearance update

I just received notice that Ian’s and Evan’s medical clearances came through. Stacy’s hasn’t come through yet, possibly because of a small complication with her medical exam. He has a long-standing health issue related to her having grown up in another country. Our family doctor says that it isn’t a problem, but I’m not surprised that the staff in the State Department’s medical office will scratch their heads over it for a few minutes.

I sent Evan’s information in on March 24th. One week to clearance. That’s pretty speedy, by US Government standards, and much faster than I had thought it would be.


The security check continues

I ran into a neighbor at the gym today. She said that our Diplomatic Security investigator contacted her. That was a little curious, because although I had given him a list of all the people who live on our street, I didn’t specifically tell him that she would be a good contact. It seems that he wants to get contacts from contacts. We give him a name, and he asks that person to give him another name. Maybe the idea is that this is a way to get unrehearsed or unprepared responses from people.


I sent in the medical forms for Stacy, Ian and Evan’s medical clearance, and I forgot to sign Evan’s form. It was bounced back yesterday.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that I have noticed that the speed of responses from the State Department has been encouragingly fast. I read somewhere that there was an initiative to reduce the time needed for clearances. Maybe it’s working.

So I have to sign and re-submit Evan’s forms. It’s all done electronically: I email a PDF file to State with a scan of the forms. Good thing I have a scanner at home.

With this delay, Evan’s medical clearance will take a little longer than Stacy’s and Ian’s. My clearance came through in a matter of days. So maybe by the end of next week, we will all have medical clearance. Knock on wood!

Background check status

The investigator who is doing the local background check is almost done. Tomorrow he will talk with my current boss, then he will be all done with his information-gathering.

This process has been more time-consuming than I thought it would be. I thought he would talk with me and a few people, then write up his report. Instead, he is asking very detailed questions about my past activities, trying to understand exactly what I was doing when. He is being very meticulous. If I were trying to hide something or lie to him, it would be hard to keep my story straight. Maybe that’s part of the point of asking so many detailed questions.

Although it’s taking more time than I anticipated, the investigator is a nice guy, a retired Secret Service agent. He has called me about a half-dozen times with follow-up questions, and every time he apologizes for being so nit-picky. His pleasant demeanor prevents the experience from being unpleasant.

I’m starting to get anxious. I want to get cleared, to be put on the Register, and to get The Call. I want to start the next stage in my life. I want to start a new career in the Foreign Service. Many other people have written that this part of the application process is hard, because there is little you can do to help speed the process along. I feel helpless.

Tom Petty was right: the waiting is the hardest part.

Telling the boss

In order to be eligible for employment, Foreign Service officer candidates must be able to be granted a Top Secret security clearance. As soon as I passed the Oral Assessment in February, the State Department began its investigation of me. Part of the investigation involves interviewing friends and coworkers of the candidate.

It’s a good idea to give some advance notice to people who might be interviewed. If a a G-man knocks on your friend’s door and starts asking questions about you, you’d want your friend to have some idea what the questions were all about.

The same goes for your boss. You wouldn’t want your boss to get the wrong idea about the interview. But there’s a dilemma: to tell your boss to expect a security interview is to let your boss know that you are actively seeking employment elsewhere. That can be awkward.

One person on a bulletin board reported that she was fired immediately upon telling her boss about her candidacy for the Foreign Service. Since most of us in the working world are “at will” employees, we can be fired for any reason that isn’t a violation of a legally-protected status. Your boss can’t fire you for being a certain race or gender, but he can fire you because you have an annoying laugh, or you dress funny, or you like the wrong sports team. Or if you have applied for a job elsewhere.

After reading that person’s story, I felt the need to share my own experience about telling my boss. Here is what I wrote:


My experience with telling the boss was wonderful. About a week after I passed the OA, I told my boss that I was pursuing a career in the Foreign Service, and that he could expect to be contacted by investigators.

I was anxious about telling him, because a few years ago, when I was still a university faculty, I was awarded a Fulbright, and my boss was not only not supportive, she was angry with me. Being a Fulbright Scholar damaged my academic career. 🙁

Fast-forward a few years. In a new career in the financial sector, I was anxious about telling my boss about the FS. When I broke the news to him, I was careful to remind him that there are no guarantees, it wasn’t going to happen soon, and that any number of factors could, as the renowned reproductive scientist Todd Aiken infamously stated: “shut that whole thing down.”

To my surprise, my boss not only knows what the FS is, but he also had a very positive reaction to my news. He smiled, congratulated me, said that he was proud of me, and promised to do everything that he could to help. In short, his reaction was a polar opposite of how my previous boss reacted to the Fulbright.

It was hard to believe that he was really supportive, but a few days later, he asked me to be the point person on a new long-term project. I told him that I would be happy to work on it as long as I am still working there, but I reminded him that my future was a little uncertain. He said he remembered, and that he would be happy to have me as long as he could.

A few days later, his boss (VP) popped his head into my office and congratulated me, too. I am very pleasantly surprised at the level of support and encouragement that I have received from the management.

To make a long story short (too late), although Marti’s experience doesn’t surprise me, not every boss will have the same scumbag reaction. I guess I’m one of the lucky ones (this time).

TL;DR: my boss didn’t fire me when I told him about my FS aspirations.


Blood tests are getting easier

As part of the very thorough medical clearance, I need a lot of tests done. Yesterday two vials of my blood were drawn, and this morning I had to go back and lose another vial.

I have a history of breaking out in a cold sweat around needles, but this time I was able to get through it without any problems.

Even though the experience wasn’t traumatic, it wasn’t any fun getting stuck with a needle on my birthday. After it was over, I treated myself to a doughnut.

The Security Check begins

I was notified by email that Diplomatic Security now has a “complete security package” on me and will start to process my security application. I guess this marks the point at which my background check actually begins.

The additional information that they needed was on my foreign spouse. Stacy has relatives in Taiwan and in China, and we needed to supply the State Department with birth dates, addresses and occupation data for her aunts and uncles. This was tough; her relatives in China live in rural areas, and they don’t have “addresses” in the sense of an American mailing address. It isn’t as vague as “village by the mountain,” but it isn’t much more than that.

We decided to give as much information as we could, and added a footnote that she has never even met the Mainland Chinese relatives, and crossed our fingers. Luckily, State seems to be satisfied with what we gave them.

Official word from the State Department is that security clearances take between six and eight months. Other candidates are reporting on the online discussion group that their clearances are taking as little as three months, and the more typical time period seems to be four months.

I still think that, with my complicated background, my clearance will take closer to the longer end of the official time range. I would be very surprised if they were done with me in only three or four months.

The next step should be a face-to-face interview with an officer who will be in charge of my case. Then interviews with my employers, coworkers, friends, neighbors, etc. From what other people have written about the process, it’s pretty thorough. Although I’ve read several accounts about the security clearance process, I will reserve judgement. Experience has taught me not to believe everything that I read.

Language Points

I need language points. My score on the Oral Assessment was high enough to qualify me for a job, but not high enough to ensure that I will actually receive an offer of employment. The process of selecting Foreign Service officers is a pure meritocracy: at this point in the process, only those candidates who have a high enough score will get a job.

Although I can’t do anything about my OA score, I can supplement it by showing a high proficiency in a foreign language. By taking a proficiency test, candidates can supplement their score, and thus win a higher place on the registry. In addition, not all languages are equally valuable to the FS. There is a list of “Super Critical Languages.” Not surprisingly, languages on that list are those that are spoken in strategically important countries. Chinese is on that list.

Being a speaker of Chinese, I am in the position to get extra language points if I can demonstrate high enough proficiency in Chinese.

But I’m worried. My Chinese is pretty good, especially speaking and listening. However, I have never been formally assessed.

I am fortunate that in the modern world, there is no shortage of what language teachers call “realia;” artifacts of real language that can be useful for language teaching and learning. Thanks to YouTube and other websites, there are many sources of real Chinese that I can use to improve my language skills.

The Chinese that is spoken in China is probably 90-95% the same as the Chinese spoken in Taiwan, but there are some differences in pronunciation and vocabulary. Think of British English and American English. Mostly the same, but still different.

Lately I have been watching Voice of America’s Chinese news, and the evening news from Taiwan’s Public Television Service. Both are freely available on the web.

The Taiwanese news is broadcast in an accent that is familiar to me, and I since I lived in Taiwan so long, I can relate to the topics and cultural references. But that isn’t going to be enough. It’s likely that I would be posted in China, so I need to be familiar with the accent and phraseology that is used in China. More importantly and practically, the person administering the test will likely be a Mainland Chinese person, not Taiwanese Chinese, so I have to get used to the accent. Voice of America’s Chinese programming is dominated by native speakers from China, and it seems that the intended audience of its programming is people in China. So it’s a good resource.