In light of the recent investigation of Hillary Clinton and her aides in regards to E-mails sent via her personal E-mail that contained classified material, I am wondering if the state department has the power to deny the President of the United States security clearance?

  • After I finished updating this answer based on Comey's testimony, I was wondering if someone would ask this. I'm pretty certain the answer is "No", but I haven't yet looked into figuring out the offiical reasons for why that is.
    – Bobson
    Commented Jul 8, 2016 at 21:55
  • AFAIK it is not "Yes or no" question. Intelligence works in a "need to know" basis, it would certainly make sense giving the POTUS access to the assesment of foreign governments, groups and individuals but deny him access to, say, the F-35 blueprints. And of course, denying him access to the information that he needs to take the decissions related to his role would be absurd, and a dangerous move towards a cripto-dictatorship.
    – SJuan76
    Commented Jul 8, 2016 at 23:32
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    @SJuan76 The President decides need-to-know. If he decides he needs to see the F-35 blueprints, he sees the F-35 blueprints.
    – cpast
    Commented Jul 9, 2016 at 5:37
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    In point of fact, the President decides that a need-to-know is even a requirement at all. Currently, the stipulation is derived from section 4.1 of Executive Order 13526, implemented entirely at the pleasure of President Obama. Hard to stress just how completely the answer to this question is "absolutely not."
    – Eikre
    Commented Jul 9, 2016 at 16:28
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    The US President is the one person who does not have a clearance. The President ultimately decides who is cleared and who is not and also has the final say in deciding what is classified and what is not classified. The President could unclassify everything if he wanted. Commented Mar 17, 2017 at 15:34

1 Answer 1


No. Classified information exists pursuant to executive order (specifically, EO13526 at the moment). Congress has passed some laws to affect some portions of that (such as banning clearances for people who are actively using illegal drugs), but the laws give extreme discretion to the President. The President can, with a stroke of his pen, declassify literally every single piece of classified information that isn't a nuclear secret (those are classified pursuant to a different, statutory regime set out in the Atomic Energy Act). The President can demand to see any piece of classified information held by the US government; for people in many senior posts, The President can fire them on the spot if they try to stonewall.

But that's not the only reason. The President is a constitutional officer. His inherent duties, and the qualifications required for the office, are laid out in the Constitution. No law can modify those, and neither can an executive order. For the same reason, neither members of Congress nor federal judges must be approved for access to classified information when it's necessary for them to carry out their constitutional duties. Neither the President, nor members of Congress, nor federal judges can be required to keep and maintain a clearance to do their jobs. Even an act of Congress couldn't make the President have a clearance.

That doesn't mean a member of Congress or a judge can just demand to see some piece of classified information; they're not exempt from need-to-know (access to classified information requires both a clearance and need-to-know that information), and if they and the executive branch disagree on need-to-know it can be resolved like any other interbranch conflict. But the President is the head of the executive branch, so if The President and an executive branch official disagree on need-to-know, the President wins (it's less "checks and balances" and more "the boss can tell his subordinates what to do").

Certain acts of Congress might restrict some information from going to the President for privacy reasons (although not always; for instance, while tax returns are private, Congress decided that the President can personally request any tax return they want for any reason and just has to disclose that to the appropriate congressional committee), but nothing impedes The President's ability to carry out their constitutional duties in national security.

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    Given the question refers to the possibility of the next president being female, could you change your post to use gender neutral pronouns?
    – user8430
    Commented Jul 11, 2016 at 2:27
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    I thought they were talking about Trump when they were worried about security clearance?
    – gnasher729
    Commented Jul 11, 2016 at 23:29
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    @DarkHeart - Changing every pronoun to "he/she/it" would become very painful to read after the first dozen occurrences. I think that the meaning is understood. Commented Oct 10, 2016 at 1:58
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    What if the President is kept unaware that a certain project even exists? He wouldn't even know that there was something he could clear himself to know. e g en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Venona_project
    – DJohnM
    Commented Aug 21, 2018 at 4:09

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