Comparison: Obtaining Top Secret Clearance vs. Disputing a Parking Ticket

I am one of the few, the fortunate, to successfully navigate two of the Government’s most formidable challenges: a few years ago I obtained Top Secret security clearance (actually, three levels above “top secret”), and more recently, I cleared my name of a parking ticket in Boston traffic court. I’d like to describe the experience so that others may learn from the grueling tribulations I endured.

Entrance & Approach

For personnel requiring the highest level of security clearance, the National Security Agency administers polygraph tests in an unmarked campus that looks like a public high school built in the 50’s. The notable difference is that the building has no windows and is surrounded by a barbed wire perimeter with security guards patrolling. To enter the building, you punch in your social security number into a rotating gate, relinquish all books and paper to the security guard, proceed through a metal detector and into the polygraph center…

Similarly, to dispute a ticket with Boston’s Department of Traffic, one enters the City Hall building, and go through a metal detector and carry-on screening similar to the airport. My blackberry did not set off the alarm, nor did I need to take off my shoes. Then I proceeded down to the cavernous basement where the Traffic Department resides.

Conclusion: security is somewhat higher at the NSA than at City Hall.

The Interviews

The NSA polygraph is a simple device – a blood pressure monitor that wraps around the arm, and two conductivity sensors that clip gently onto the fingers of one hand. The wires are then hooked up to a black box that records and prints out the results over the course of the two-hour interview. The interview consists of two sections: the first section to feret out criminal activity, the second section to feret out spies through counterintelligence. Although two hours long, there are only about 20 questions, which are asked in different ways and in different order. My NSA interviewer was a charming fellow, who encouraged me to any illicit activity, since the process is focused on trying to find major offenses and double agents, and withholding information no matter how minor would screw up the results and lead to a failure.

Back at City Hall, I was led into a small, drab, windowless room – not unlike the NSA’s polygraph room. The interviewer again had a desk, a computer, and a casette recorder. The interviewer was a very nice woman, but she sternly reminded me that perjury was a criminal offense, and that meter maids are trusted at their word, unless I could bring incontrovertable proof in my defense. We proceeded to discuss the parking ticket I had received. She drew a diagram of the situation and asked a few questions until she was reasonably convinced that I was not a serious threat to society, at which point she reticently voided the ticket.

Conclusion: The NSA is more informal, friendly, yet thorough. The Boston Traffic Dept vehemently defends the integrity of its meter maids, and is far more skeptical than the NSA.

Triumph!

The polygraph finished successfully, I had my fingerprints digitally scanned (no ink), a photo taken, and a voice signature recorded. I punched my social security number into the gate one final time, and stepped out into the cold, barren tundra that are beyond the suburbs of DC.

Once my parking tickets were voided, my parking lady and I chatted a little more about traffic laws and tickets, and then I was free to return to the light of day, filled with happy people unaware of the suffering taking place just below the surface of City Hall.

Conclusion: The polygraph hurt more (since the blood pressure cuff cuts off circulation), was longer, and required multiple flights and bus rides. But I still think I enjoyed the polygraph more than Traffic Court, if only because of the coolness factor.

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One response to “Comparison: Obtaining Top Secret Clearance vs. Disputing a Parking Ticket

  1. Our company is involved in the security industry and has a “Security” clearance but not a “Top Secret” clearance. We have some very honest and loyal personnel in the firm and believe we would perform well on projects that require a TS/SI clearance. How does a company or key individuals within the company pursue such a clearance?

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