Top-secret: Select few retain active security clearance after leaving official capacity

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Published: August 18, 2018

It is a longstanding tradition that some high-ranking, former senior officials from past presidential administrations retain active security clearances after leaving their official capacities.

Such is the case with the former intelligence officials whose security clearances President Donald Trump is considering revoking for what he says was using their security access for political and personal gain.

That some former officials, including those in defense, intelligence, diplomacy and law enforcement retain active security clearances runs contrary to the security clearances of other government employees who leave their jobs (without incidents of alleged misconduct), which become deactivated after a short period of time.

Reasons for retaining former officials’ active security clearances vary, but is common so they can share information about past events or foreign governments with the incoming administration. Former officials also may be called upon by other agencies for consultation.

The risks associated with allowing former officials to retain active security clearances include the chance that they could leak sensitive information, either by accident or on purpose, or that they could use their clearances to obtain information that they could use to publicly criticize the current administration.

There are three levels of security clearance: confidential, secret and top-secret, and the intent of security clearances is to benefit the government, not the individuals who possess them. To retain an active clearance, an employee must have a sponsor (e.g., the government or company holding a facility clearance and sponsoring the employee) and he or she may only access information on a need-to-know basis.

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