Having access to secret information is a valuable asset.
Former CIA Director John Brennan testifies in May 2017 before the House Intelligence Committee on Russian interference in the 2016 election campaign.
Former CIA Director John Brennan testifies in May 2017 before the House Intelligence Committee on Russian interference in the 2016 election campaign.
Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

President Donald Trump stripped former CIA Director John Brennan of his security clearance on Wednesday, after the intelligence chief’s frequent criticism of Trump appeared to anger the president enough to retaliate. But Trump’s attack is likely to leave Brennan unscathed.

Although Trump’s move broke with precedent and triggered a backlash from national security officials, Brennan’s high profile means his finances and job prospects probably won’t be harmed. But for the vast majority of people with security clearance, losing that credential could cost them dearly.

Security clearances give job applicants a financial advantage over uncleared colleagues that likely amounts to thousands of dollars a year. Employees in the Washington area with security clearance make 5 percent to 15 percent higher salaries for the same job as someone without clearance, according to a 2017 survey of human resource departments by the Human Resource Association of the National Capital Area.

Security clearance is also divided into different levels, and individuals who have obtained top secret clearance generally have a higher percentage of difference between their salaries and that of the average worker. The range of how much more money someone with security clearance makes can vary wildly, however, and the HRA-NCA found some jobs where individuals make up to 60 percent more than someone in a similar position without that level of access.

The types of jobs that require security clearance tend to pay much more in the first place. The average compensation for security-cleared professionals worldwide is $93,000, according to a 2018 survey from ClearanceJobs.com, a placement service for employees with security clearances. That number is up 7 percent from the previous year, the survey reports.

Despite the increase in reported salaries this year, security clearance industry observers say job prospects were even better in the past when higher unemployment meant job applicants with clearance had a better chance at finding work among the limited open positions.

“Having a security clearance is not necessarily the golden ticket that it used to be,” said Evan Lesser, president of ClearanceJobs.com. But Lesser added that the demand for security-cleared employees is still high and such workers face a much friendlier job market than the average American.

While there is no legal prohibition against promoting your security clearance, lawyers generally advise people to not openly broadcast it in case they become a target for hackers and spies ― or run afoul of people who could revoke their access. Not everyone adheres to that advice.

“Sometimes we see people put their clearance level on LinkedIn,” said Sean M. Bigley, a security clearance attorney.

Losing security clearance can also be a huge setback for people who have spent their lives in a field where access to secretive information is key to their profession.

“A lot of times we have clients who have spent 20 years working as an intelligence analyst or a diplomat ... and they find themselves out of security clearance, out of job,” said Bigley.

“Those skills often aren’t easily translatable to other professions. If you’ve spent 20 years working as a spy, what else do you go and do?”

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