The recent scrum concerning the security clearance of former National Security Adviser General Michael Flynn has given rise to a number of inquiries as to what happens to your individual U.S. government security clearance when you are suspended, fired or retire.
The term “ticket” is often used to refer to security clearances, as the security clearance is a requisite for the position. It is, in a way, the ticket to eligibility to perform classified work.
General Flynn retired from the U.S. Army following after being asked to leave as Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. He maintained his eligibility post-retirement. When he became National Security Adviser, his having a security clearance was a requirement of the position and his security clearance was reactivated.
Let’s take the questions one by one as they pertain to personnel in less lofty positions and circumstances than General Flynn. I have first-hand experience with all three scenarios.
Suspended/Asked to leave:
When an employee is asked to step-away from their work and take a time-out, their security clearances may be suspended or remain in place, but their access to classified materials removed. The decision lays within the authority of the cognizant security authority (CSA). I have, unfortunately, a bit of first-hand experience dealing with being “asked to leave” my position within the CIA while the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) conducted the hunt for Robert Hanssen.
I was an intelligence officer. I collected information from human sources and had the honor to have served in some challenging posts, against some of the hardest targets. During the FBI/CIA hunt for Hanssen many stones were turned and the professional lives of individual CIA/FBI employees put in limbo. Their lives were upended because one or another of Hanssen’s many compromises had touched one or more pieces of their professional lives. The CIA/FBI had no choice but to pursue all possible leads; it is the nature of intelligence and counterintelligence.
While I was asked to “leave” my classified work “to protect the Agency” during the 9-months of the FBI/CIA investigation, my security clearance was neither suspended nor revoked by the CSA. I was reassigned to work which did not require me to access current classified materials. I took a History Fellowship within the Center for the Studies of Intelligence, while I awaited my exoneration. Once exonerated, I went back to work and finished out my career (as my bio below indicates, it was a very good career).
Security Clearance and Retirement
After 30+ years, I retired from the CIA. My security clearance eligibility remained and I had two-years to reactivate the clearance.
Within those two-years I had a position which required my having a security clearance: managing and leading the National Industrial Security Program (NISPOM) at Cisco. When my work required a security clearance, the CSA was requested to reactivate the clearance. The process was quick. The clock continued ticking for the periodic reinvestigation and counterintelligence polygraph.
When I retired from Cisco, my clearance once again went into abeyance. While I maintain my eligibility for a clearance, more than two-years have passed and should I be invited to work in a classified environment again, I would have to start from scratch in obtaining a clearance.
What Happens to your security clearance if you’re Fired
While not having been fired, I had to manage scenarios where a cleared employee was fired – both from within government (CIA) and private sector (Cisco). In both instances, when the individual’s service was terminated the CSA (National Security – Facility Security Officer & Cognizant Security Authority) were informed immediately.
In the first instance, the CIA employees’s security clearances were immediately revoked.
In the latter instance, the employee’s security clearance remained in tact and could be reactivated within two-years, as the CSA noted the separation from employer was project specific and did not warrant an adjudication review for clearance suitability. Had the firing been for an infraction which would have brought the individual’s trustworthiness into question, the CSA most likely would have taken a dim view on the continuation of the security clearance of the individual.