The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) says the president has the ultimate authority to decide who holds a security clearance.
But who gets these clearances?
Security clearances are for individuals who – for a variety of reasons – need access to classified information.
They are given to people who have undergone a background check and whose personal and professional history affirmatively indicates loyalty to the United States, strength of character, trustworthiness, honesty, reliability, discretion, and sound judgment, according to an executive order pertaining to access to classified information.
Besides the allegiance to the US, officials also explore the sexual behavior, financial situations, alcohol and drug use, mental health and potential foreign influences when determining if a person can get a security clearance.
The process to be granted a security clearance is complex and very detailed. There’s a 100 page report that must be filled out, and also, investigators interview the individual in addition to friends, family and other references. It’s even possible that some agencies such as the CIA and FBI, can also require individuals to sit for a polygraph test.
Private companies, too, can petition the government to get security clearances for employees.
In 2015, about 4.2 million people had or were eligible for a security clearance as estimated by the ODNI.
But not all security clearances are the same. There are 3 main levels of clearances – top secret, secret and confidential. And those who receive the highest-level clearances don’t necessarily get to see every piece of sensitive material.
Yet those those with a lower-level security clearance “don’t deal very much with classified information at all. One must renew a security clearance every few years, although, they can last a lifetime.
Just because an official has left the federal government, doesn’t mean his or her security clearance is automatically revoked. These clearances can remain active for several years.
And lastly, someone maintaining their clearance after leaving office doesn’t necessarily have access to classified information – unless a current agency requests it.