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A Traveler in the Foreign Service: Can a guy who didn't get high get a security clearance?

I was sitting at my kitchen table with a former law-enforcement official feeling nervous about the fact that I'd never taken any illegal drugs.

"In the last seven years, have you illegally used any controlled substance- cocaine, crack cocaine, marijuana, hash, narcotics, stimulants, depressants, hallucinogens, steroids, inhalants or prescription drugs?" the man asked, reading from a list of prepared questions.

"No, not at all," I answered.

The man looked up from his yellow legal pad and put his pen down.

"You never smoked marijuana?" he asked, squinting his eyes as if struggling to see me.

I had no pony tail, I wasn't wearing a tie-dyed t-shirt, and there were no half eaten cartons of Cherry Garcia in sight. Was my story really so unbelievable? I half-considered concocting some recreational drug use just to be a bit less boring.

I had passed the Foreign Service written exam and the oral assessment and had received a "conditional" offer of employment from the State Department. The offer was contingent upon being able to pass background and medical examinations, and having the good fortune to be invited to join an A-100 class, which is an introductory class for incoming Foreign Service Officers.

My kitchen table non-confession was with a contract background investigator who had been retained by the Office of Personnel Management to delve into my background to ensure that I wasn't a spy, a terrorist, or a drug addict.

After the series of questions on drug and alcohol use, he asked me if I had any plans to overthrow the U.S. government by force. He was reading from a prepared list of questions, so it wasn't like he'd sized me up and thought I was a radical jihadi, but I couldn't help but wonder if anyone had ever answered yes to that question.

I sailed through the rest of his prepared questions without a raised eyebrow until we got to a section on my prior foreign travel and foreign contacts. I did my best to compile a list of my foreign travel over the prior seven year period, but had no idea who I should list in the foreign contacts section. I'd made dozens of foreign friends in my travels over the years but for the sake of simplicity, listed only a few as "close and continuing contacts."

I assumed that the State Department would want Foreign Service Officers who had traveled extensively and had foreign contacts, but in the context of a background investigation, foreign travel and contacts are viewed with suspicion, and each foreign trip elicits a litany of additional questions.

After speaking with me, the investigator started knocking on the doors of my neighbors to ask about me each of the many addresses I'd live in during the previous seven years. After several of my former bosses and co-workers were interviewed, I was warned that the investigator needed to interview my current boss.

The State Department recruiter had specifically warned us against giving notice at our current jobs because our employment offer was merely "conditional" and not a done deal, so I had to inform my boss that I was quitting. Probably. But not really giving notice just yet. They were understanding, but it made me a bit of a lame duck months before I was to leave and the day the investigator came to our small office, the place was buzzing with gossip. I had to tell everyone that I was "probably" going to join the Foreign Service. Sometime soon, I hoped.

More than a year after I passed the Foreign Service exam I finally had my security clearance and a concrete offer to join the Foreign Service. A week prior to leaving for training in Washington, I asked my girlfriend to marry me. She said yes, but we had no clue what country we'd be in the next year and that suited me just fine.

Next: The List, The Call, The Flag- Assignments in the Foreign Service

Read more from A Traveler in the Foreign Service here.

[flickr image via Wiros]

Filed under: Blogs, North America, United States

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