Trump took away former Obama-era CIA chief John Brennan’s clearance this week, and has threatened to revoke clearance from nine other former high-ranking officials who have crossed him since he took office.
But Trump’s actions are only making work harder for his own appointees to do their jobs, according to John V. Berry, a Washington-based lawyer who specializes in security clearance cases.
“It doesn’t hurt John Brennan all that much. It just hurts the government and intelligence operations,” Berry told Global News by phone.
Here’s what Trump did to Brennan by taking his clearance — and what it means for the United States.
WATCH: Former CIA deputy director says revocation of John Brennan’s security clearance ‘inappropriate’
What is security clearance?
The U.S. government has three broad levels of security clearance, ranging from confidential to secret to the highest level, top secret.
Each level grants a person access to sensitive government information, and prohibits the person from sharing it with others who don’t have a similar clearance.
WATCH BELOW: White House revokes John Brennan’s security clearance
Berry says many individuals need to get security clearance to work for the government, whether they’re employed at the White House or at a military base in Guam.
“A good, sizable proportion of federal employees and military employees need security clearance,” said Berry, who has represented people in the intelligence field for approximately 20 years.
He says confidential and secret levels of clearance are much more common than top secret clearance, which is typically granted to high-ranking employees in sensitive areas.
Most security clearances expire two years after someone leaves government service, according to the U.S. State Department.
WATCH: Stunned reaction in Washington after Trump admin revokes John Brennan’s security clearance
However, top secret clearance often works differently for individuals such as Brennan, Berry said.
Why did Brennan still have security clearance?
It’s not easy to simply hand over the reins of an intelligence agency with interests around the globe. That’s why former top security officials are allowed to maintain their clearance after leaving a post, Berry says.
In the case of Brennan, who left office in 2017, his security clearance allowed him “to talk to the current CIA director and others in the government about his thoughts and strategy,” Berry said.
In other words, current CIA director Gina Haspel used to be able to call up Brennan and ask him about issues he faced, such as sensitive counter-terrorism efforts or espionage programs that might still be going on today.
WATCH: John Brennan says he ‘was not told’ security clearance was under review
Brennan has also contributed to Congressional intelligence committee investigations into Russian interference in the election.
Berry adds that Brennan likely didn’t have access to classified information, so Trump’s move won’t change how much he knows about the current administration.
“Taking it away really doesn’t do anything to him, except take away the benefit of his experience and sharing that with others in the government,” Berry said.
Several former intelligence officers blasted Trump for that reason on Thursday, in a joint letter that labelled his actions “unprecedented.”
Separately, retired Navy admiral William H. McRaven, who oversaw the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, said he would “consider it an honour” to lose his clearance.
“Through your actions, you have embarrassed us in the eyes of our children, humiliated us on the world stage and, worst of all, divided us as a nation,” McRaven wrote in the Washington Post.
In a statement, Trump said he revoked Brennan’s clearance to protect the nation’s classified information.
WATCH BELOW: Trump threatened in July to take security clearance from Obama-era officials
“Mr. Brennan’s lying and recent conduct characterized by increasingly frenzied commentary is wholly inconsistent with access to the nation’s most closely held secrets,” Trump said earlier this week, in announcing the move.
Among the more enthusiastic supporters of the move has been Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, who said Brennan was one of a number of “partisans who should have their clearances revoked.”
“I urged the president to do this,” the Republican senator said in a statement on Wednesday.
Paul accused Brennan of “making partisan political use of his clearance” since his departure.
Has anyone ever lost top clearance before?
Former CIA director John Deutch was stripped of his top secret security clearance in 1999, after investigators found he had classified documents on an unsecured home computer. The documents dated back to his tenure as head of the agency from May 1995 to December 1996.
Deutch also faced criminal charges for the incident, but he escaped punishment when Bill Clinton issued him a pardon on Clinton’s last day as president.
Berry says it’s unheard of for a president to revoke clearance from a former official who criticized him.
“No other president has done this before,” he said.
Can Brennan challenge it?
Brennan faces no formal charges or allegations over his loss of security clearance, so he won’t have his day in court unless he argues that Trump’s move infringes on his right to free speech, Berry says.
He adds that while Trump said he “revoked” Brennan’s clearance, the president actually terminated it using his executive power — a move that does not allow Brennan to formally respond.
Under U.S. law, individuals who have their clearance revoked are allowed to challenge the move in writing.
Trump has also floated the idea of terminating the security clearance of nine other individuals, including James Clapper, the former director of national intelligence, and James Comey, the former FBI director who Trump fired over the Russia investigation.
Berry says it’s within Trump’s powers to take clearances from everyone on that list.
He could also expand that list to include some of his more high-profile enemies, such as former secretary of state Hillary Clinton and former president Barack Obama, Berry said.
“I think he wants a distraction,” Berry said. “It’s really poor judgment.”