Security Clearance Character Reference Letters

Do character references actually help?

It is easy to read a Security Clearance Statement of Reasons (SOR) or Security Clearance Letter of Intent (LOI) and assume that your character is being called into question. In certain cases, the listed “concern” or the “factors that may raise a security concern” listed in the SOR or LOI can certainly imply that. You may rightfully feel pressured that in order to keep your security clearance you must prove that you are not a “bad guy” or that you are a “moral person” and then the race is on to collect as many character references as possible in order to vouch for you and your ability to keep your security clearance.

Such efforts to paint yourself in the most innocent light possible can be misguided.  While a security clearance determination is generally based on a “whole person” concept, the SOR or LOI is not calling into question whether the security clearance applicant or holder is a good person.  Each SOR/LOI usually hinges on a certain fact, event, or pattern of behavior that created a security clearance concern. This should be the focus of your response to the SOR or LOI.  Character references alone often provide vague and unnecessary details about one’s life. Often these references are merely icing on the cake.  And, to be blunt, simply responding to a security clearance SOR or LOI with character statements will not be sufficient to overcome the initial determination to deny or revoke the security clearance.

That said, any SOR or LOI response should focus on the specific security concerns raised AND include some character statements establishing who the applicant or holder is in his or her professional and personal lives. Here are a few rules to help you focus them toward your SOR or LOI.

Rule #1 – Choose Wisely

When choosing character references for your security clearance, you should be judicious in who will be providing information about you. They should be someone who knows you well, preferably over a long period of time and during the time of the conduct that raised the concern(s) listed in the SOR/LOI. They should be able to relay specific facts about how they have observed you and be able to explain in detail why they think that you are trustworthy, reliable, or exhibit good judgement.

Rule #2 – Less is More

The security clearance adjudicators and judges at the Department of Defense Consolidated Adjudications Facility (DoDCAF) and the Defense Office of Hearings and Appeals (DOHA) want to see that you can defeat or mitigate the concerns in you SOR orLOI. Their dockets are long, and their workload is constantly growing. After reading three or four letters from your favorite high school teachers all saying the same thing, they will start to lose interest. Keep your security clearance character references to no more than five or six meaningful individuals from various parts of your life – personal, professional, spiritual, etc.

Rule #3 – No Family

Family can be a great source of support while dealing with a SOR or LOI, but they are also necessarily biased. Even if they present an impartial analysis of your character traits, their words will be discounted heavily by the security clearance adjudicators and judges. Your family also knows some of your most private moments and may present facts about you that may or may not have been disclosed previously. To avoid unnecessary disclosures and wasted paper, keep family out of it.

Finally, here are some TIPS for writing character reference letters for a security clearance SOR or LOI:

  1. The reference needs to indicate who they are – name, age, address, contact information, and what they do in the community (i.e. employment).
  2. The reference needs to stay what his or her relationship is with the applicant and how much contact he or she has with the applicant and over what period.
  3. The reference needs to indicate that he or she is fully away of the security clearance concerns raised in the SOR or LOI and that the letter will be used for the applicant’s response.
  4. The reference needs to give concern examples that demonstrate the applicants reliability, trustworthiness, and good judgment.



This post was written by Korody Law extern Cade Spivey.  Mr. Spivey is a graduate of the United States Naval Academy and spent 7 years as a Surface Warfare Officer.  He will graduate from Wake Forest Law School in May 2021.  He has focused his studies on National Security Law including Security Clearance Law.

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