After President Donald Trump recently revoked the security clearance of former CIA Director and longtime Trump critic John Brennan, many other top military officials, including Admiral William McRaven (who oversaw the 2011 raid that killed Osama Bin Laden), have declared that they are also willing to give up their security clearances by openly speaking out against President Trump. Perhaps it was wrong for Donald Trump to take what is perceived to be vengeful action against someone who does not agree with him, but a more interesting question would be why Brennan and other former high-ranking former intelligence officials still have their security clearances in the first place. Since these people no longer actively work for the government, why do they have access to the most classified government secrets?
Firstly, it is worth noting that the policy of elite intelligence officials maintaining their clearances is not an official policy; there is no active legislation permitting retirees to have their security clearances after their work is done. One of the main reasons this informal policy is in place is to make it easier for former intelligence leaders to be able to consult their successors on classified matters in case those successors need assistance or advice. According to Jamil N. Jaffer, who founded the George Mason University National Security Institute, “former senior officials who hold active security clearance can be critically important to those currently defending our nation" because such clearance allows retired intelligence leaders to “provide wise counsel and guidance" in helping “interpret the activities of our opponents." For example, when someone becomes the director of an agency like the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) or the FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation), there are few officials who rank highly enough to give them the advice they need to do the job effectively. The only people a new director can turn to are the senior officials who did their job before them and can access classified information to help them out. This is the primary reason that people like Brennan and McRaven have security clearances.
Currently, post-employment clearance is reviewed every five years; however, it can potentially last the entire life of the clearance holder. For those concerned with the influence that a lifetime security clearance may have on the integrity of classified information, rest assured, there are still restrictions on information access even with a clearance. Having a security clearance does not mean unlimited access to secret information. According to security clearance attorney Bradley Moss, former officials with security clearance usually can only access restricted government files when given the authorization of the government agency who requests their counsel. Therefore, aside from giving advice, retired senior intelligence officials really have no need for, or access to, sensitive information.