The recent headlines regarding the current administration revocation of clearances, prompts the question. I would like to understand why this group of ex-government personnel (not the line-level personnel) has clearances and how the stakeholders benefit from sharing information.

I realize that this a politically charged topic and no inference should be drawn from the question. My work experience has brought me face to face with clearances: no explanation is necessary as to how they work. Please stay focused on the question.

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    Where govt depts are concerned (especially law enforcement), I would assume that although you've left their employ, there may still be a need to speak to you periodically about ongoing cases. – Valorum Aug 16 at 20:32
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    Lack rep to answer, but "$$$ + experience." TS-SCI clearance investigations cost a ton of money & time. It's a huge, stupid, inappropriate waste to vindictively revoke them for personal reasons. Fed employees often move between fed jobs & contracting that req's a clearance - repeat investigations waste tax dollars. Brennan et al are witnesses in ongoing criminal & counter-intelligence investigations, testifying on classified matters. Leaders at this level frequently advise their replacements on classified matters. They don't have "access" but the "clearance" stays valid until it expires. – mc01 Aug 20 at 21:33
up vote 55 down vote accepted

Simply? Even if you aren't in the role anymore, you're still a resource to be tapped. Pompeo's background was in law and business, not intelligence, when he got the CIA job. So if the Trump presidency held to precedent, Pompeo would have had Brennan on speed-dial to answer questions and give advice when asked without Pompeo having to worry about whether or not Brennan was allowed to hear Pompeo's issue. The typical setup is to have the former director-of-whatever get a cushy job as a government contractor in part for providing this advice whenever needed.

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    I like this answer very, very much, because a huge part of the system is reliance on institutional memory/history. – PoloHoleSet Aug 16 at 19:43
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    Some news articles will point out that the purpose for extending security clearances is that former intelligence operatives may be brought-in for consulting or recalled. So current administrations may transmit secret documents to former intelligence operatives and get their opinions on current assignments. This fact alone is the vast bulk of the reason why intelligence members keep their security clearance, and this answer is the only one that mentions it. – John Aug 17 at 18:55
  • Re:'speed-dial to answer questions'. And then both should get their clearances pulled for talking classified info on unclassified devices. – Dunk Aug 27 at 17:45
  • I don't have any information on Brennan or Pompeo using unsecured communications. Do you have a link? – Carduus Aug 27 at 18:04
  • This answer really just applies to a handful of high-level officials rather than your average ex-government employee (or ex-government contractor) with a security clearance, though. There are millions of Americans with security clearances. This reason applies to maybe several dozen. Also, in order for this to be legal, the person's security clearance must still be active, not merely not revoked. People who have a security clearance, but don't currently work in a position requiring that clearance to be active may not be given access to classified information without reactivation. – reirab Sep 3 at 2:20

Security clearances is something that qualifies you as an individual. It means that you have been evaluated and trusted to a determined security level.

If you are working at Company A and get a security clearance L1 and you stop working there, you do not lose the security clearance.

Of course, this does not mean that you can just appear at Company A and casually ask to see their sensitive files; since you no longer need to access that data to do your job you are not allowed access to the information.

If you then see a job offer at Company B that requires a L1 security clearance, then you can apply and "use" the same security clearance and use it to access to the information related to the new job.

You can repeat until the clearance is revoked.

This approach has several advantages:

  • Once cleared, if you want to change jobs you know beforehand that you qualify for any job that requires your security clearance.

  • The government avoids checking you again and again. Since the procedure seems rather complicated and slow, that helps a lot.

  • In case a former employer needs to contact you for something related to your previous work, you are already cleared.

At the workplace site there are some questions about security clearances; this one gives more details.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – yannis Aug 16 at 23:35
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    "Its like a passport" may be a useful phrase. – fectin Aug 20 at 20:33

One misconception about clearances (which I might be detecting here) is that they are all you need to look at all the classified data in existence. That's false. To look at a piece of classified info you not only need a clearance that matches the level of the information, but you must have a need to know that information.

When a government employee leaves their position, they would no longer have a need to know for the information they formerly had access to, so immediately taking away that clearance doesn't really prevent any access that wasn't already prevented.

Clearances are time-limited (usually 5 years IIRC), so they will eventually go away on their own without the government having to do anything special.

The benefit to not immediately taking a clearance away is that getting one is an expensive process. All the paperwork and investigations takes a lot of government time, and incurs no small expense to the employer sponsoring the clearance. Of course if the employer is doing government contracting (or is some branch of the government), that expense ultimately is shouldered by US taxpayers. So its in everybody's interest if someone who is between classified jobs for a couple of months doesn't have to then go through the same expensive process that returned positive for them last time all over again.

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    But revoking the clearance of a former CIA Director is not “protecting” America’s secrets. Since he no longer has a need to know, he doesn’t have access anyway. AND, revoking the clearance doesn’t make him forget what he already knows. – WGroleau Aug 17 at 4:26
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    Hmm. In the situation you describe, I'd expect James Clapper's reaction to the threat of revocation to be laughing it off and saying "Well, that's dumb because I didn't have access to secrets any more, anyway." But, from the one interview I saw, he seemed quite concerned. So is there more to it than your answer suggests? (Or is it just that Clapper is doing, e.g., consultancy work where he does still have access to secrets?) – David Richerby Aug 17 at 13:41
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    @DavidRicherby - I haven't seen the interview. Did he seem concerned for himself, or concerned for the chilling effect this kind of pointless display of spite might have on others? Realize that if someone can arrange to revoke the clearance of someone who no longer needs it outside of the normal process, its not a gigantic cognitive hop to revoking the clearance of someone who does need it. – T.E.D. Aug 17 at 13:46
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    @ZachMierzejewski - That's pure conjecture on your part. Why not just look it up rather than speculate? What I'm seeing there is that this was his 2nd ever civilian government position. He was first hired by a Republican, and he received the promotion (if the official statement from the POTUS in question is to be believed) specifically because he wasn't very politic. If he's pushing back on a POTUS he disagrees with now, that's apparently entirely within character for the guy. – T.E.D. Aug 17 at 20:45
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    @DavidRicherby Losing your clearance is a big black mark if you ever want to have one again (say, because you might want to do some consulting in a few years). – fectin Aug 20 at 20:35

Security clearances can be thought of as a kind of industry licensure that must be periodically renewed, like a medical practice license for doctors, or a bar certification for lawyers. Many private employers doing government contract work require you to already possess one upon hiring, as they are very expensive to obtain and many are unwilling to shoulder that expense for new hires. Additionally, some clearance levels require you to have already been cleared at a lower level, so you need the ability to switch jobs at different clearance levels while allowing for the amount of time it takes to do all the background checks that happen as part of the process.

Two things that people need to realize about security clearances:

  1. Although your clearance does not get revoked when your employment ends, they do expire eventually, and you can't renew your clearance if you don't work in a job that requires one. If you leave a government job to take a position in the private sector, you will have to start the process all over again if you want to take another government job in the future.
  2. Having a security clearance does not automatically grant you access to sensitive information. You must still have "need to know", which is rigidly defined within your job role. So for example, if you have a Q clearance from the Department of Energy and are already working with classified information, that does not mean you can just walk into a SCIF at another DOE site without authorization. Need to know also forbids you from sharing classified information with other parties, even if they have a higher clearance level than you.

So in reality, if you're unemployed, having a security clearance doesn't get you anything. But it is something that you can put on a resume when looking for more work, because it makes you very attractive as a candidate for those kinds of positions.

  • Unless things have changed a security clearance is deactivated or placed in a suspended state when you leave a company. Once you leave you are not working on the program that 'sponsored' the clearance so there is no longer a need to know. – CramerTV Aug 16 at 17:11
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    @CramerTV: My impression was it's still active. Need to know is a separate requirement. – cHao Aug 16 at 17:18
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    @cHao, "An “active” security clearance is one in which the candidate is presently eligible for access to classified information. A “current” security clearance is one in which a candidate has been determined eligible for access to classified information but is not currently eligible without a reinstatement. A candidate has two years to remain on a “current” status before moving to an “expired” status. Both “active” and “current” security clearances are easily transferred between employers. An “expired” clearance is one that has not been used in more than two years and cannot be reinstated." – CramerTV Aug 16 at 18:10
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    @CramerTV: That clarifies things :) – cHao Aug 16 at 18:14
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    @CramerTV from personal experience the 2 year gap expiry may not be absolute: during an interview process, my clearance was checked by the company's FSO and, according to them, still eligible for access despite being unused for ~4 years. I didn't end up taking the job, so I can't say for certain whether they were wrong. – TemporalWolf Aug 16 at 19:15

Adding a bit to SJuan's answer, when you're granted a security clearance, it's valid for a certain number of years, regardless of whether it's being used or not. When you're not working at a job where clearance is required, your clearance will be inactive and you will not have access to classified information, but your clearance won't be revoked.

Having a security clearance, even if it is inactive, makes it much easier to start a new job that requires a clearance. Simply reactivating your existing clearance is a much less expensive and time-consuming process than getting a new one. It also makes you a less risky candidate to hire for a position requiring a clearance, as there's no question of whether or not you'll be qualified to get the level of clearance that's needed for the job.

Also, it makes accepting a new job that requires a clearance easier and less risky for you, as you don't have to go through the whole clearance application process again and you don't have to wait on your clearance to be approved before you can begin work.

A driver's license is a "clearance" that shows you have some minimum required skill level at driving.

You can get a driver's license by driving one car and use it to show you have the skill to drive a different car.

However, the fact that you used to be allowed to drive someone else's car does not mean you're allowed to drive my car, because I have no reason you should.

You can be licensed to drive some vehicles but not others, and permitted or barred from different classes of vehicle at different times in your life.

If you demonstrate somehow that you no longer meet the requirements for a license, for example by driving dangerously or repeatedly breaking traffic regulations, it is likely to be removed.

The same for security clearances.

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    How can we be sure that a driver's license is like a security clearance? – indigochild Aug 16 at 23:38
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    How does this answer the question? – gatorback Aug 16 at 23:43
  • We can be sure it's like one because that's how it works - I'm not sure what more you expect beyond an analogy based on real principles. The exact detail differs, but. As for your change to the question, if this doesn't answer it, neither do the others, since all they do is explain what a clearance allows. Could you make up your mind whether you know the mechanism or not? – Nij Aug 17 at 4:13
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    +1 This actually does answer the question through the analogy. If you change cars you do not lose your license as you do not lose your clearance by changing jobs. Even if you keep your license, it does not mean you can stil drive the car you sold, because it is not yours anymore, similarly, your clearance does not allow to access your old company's documents since there is no "need to know". – user19087 Aug 17 at 14:12

protected by Philipp Aug 17 at 13:57

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