Difference Between Similar Terms and Objects

Difference Between SSBI and SCI


Most people have a skewed perception of how intelligence and counter-intelligence works. Often we base our knowledge on how they are depicted in popular media. However, the truth is far more tedious than one would expect. There is an inordinate amount of paperwork and “red-tape” an individual would have to consider and go through in the process of being qualified to access sensitive information. But qualification is actually just one stage; actual authorization is another. Within this process, a couple of terms such as Single Scope Background Investigation (SSBI) and Sensitive Compartmented Information (SCI) are thrown about but are simply different aspects in the paperwork involved in the “Spy Game.”

The Single Scope Background Investigation (SSBI) is conducted to determine whether a security clearance will be approved for an individual. This investigation is extremely comprehensive. Field interviews are standard procedure covering family, friends, employers, co-workers, prior instructors or teachers from educational institutions the individual went to, neighbors, and any and all persons that may be deemed to have important knowledge of the individual. Another aspect of an SSBI is a thorough check and review of an individual’s pertinent history including public records, previous employment, cases, financial background checks, court cases, criminal history, and any potential data that may be significant in determining the viability of approving a security clearance. It may include a National Agency Check with Local Agency Check (NACLC) and credit background checks on not just the individual himself/herself but also their spouse, cohabiting partner, and immediate family. An SSBI is mandatory for approving Top Secret, SCI, and Q access. In general, the scope is the past 10 years from the point the investigation is initiated or up to the point the individual reached 18 years of age (often, whichever is shorter). That said, different agencies may have additional or expanded scopes, and the investigation’s scope can be altered if deemed necessary.

Meanwhile, a Sensitive Compartmented Information (SCI) is not an investigation but classified information itself. It is not a classification but rather a form or type of classified information that is based or derived from critical and sensitive intelligence or processes. It is often referred to as data or information that is “beyond Top Secret,” though this is an oversimplification. It is divided into different “control systems.” These control systems of SCI are further divided and subdivided into other compartments such as: SI, TK, HCS, KDK, and the like. For instance, SI (aka Special Intelligence) which covers intercepts of a sensitive communiqué. Codewords were often used to designate how sensitive the communications were. Another control system under SCI is Talent Keyhole (TK) which covers intelligence acquired from satellite and aerial methods (such as spy planes). All information designated as an SCI is under the jurisdiction of the Director of National Intelligence including the access control systems.

How the two are related is that an individual will only have eligibility to access SCI after successfully passing an SSBI, though a reinvestigation is not out of the question even though an individual already passed an initial SSBI. However, even if an individual passes an SSBI, this does not necessarily equate to access; he is simply eligible for it. Until an explicit authorization is provided to the individual, he would not gain access to SCI information. Should the individual gain such approval, he would be required to sign a non-disclosure agreement to preserve the sensitive nature of the information he or she would be privy to. Access is also limited to the length of service the individual has within the compartment. Upon termination, this access is dissolved and a new non-disclosure agreement must be signed.

It is no surprise that there are so many “hoops” one has to jump through just to get access to sensitive information. An SSBI is just one aspect that ensures access to sensitive information, such as an SCI, given to people the government can trust.


1.A Single Scope Background Investigation (SSBI) is conducted to check if an individual is eligible to have access to sensitive intelligence information.
2.A Sensitive Compartmented Information (SCI) is a type of intelligence information whose access is limited due to the critical and potential security-risk involved.
3.An individual has to pass an SSBI to even be considered eligible to have access to an SCI. Even then, it is not a guarantee the said individual will be given approval to access the said information.

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