I do not share my friend David French’s theoretical constitutional concerns about the president’s revocation of security clearances — at least when it comes to former government officials who become media commentators and have no demonstrable need for a security clearance. Like David and many other analysts, though, I think it’s a big mistake to politicize the revocation of security clearances.
Still, I am even less of a fan of the politicization of intelligence itself. And that justifies the revocation of former CIA director John Brennan’s clearance.
As is often the case with President Trump, the right thing has been done here for the wrong reason, namely, for vengeance against a political critic who is always zealous and often unhinged. That a decision amounts to political payback does not necessarily make it wrong on the merits, but its in-your-face pettiness is counterproductive, undermining its justification.
Brennan’s tweets about Trump are objectively outrageous. To compare, I think some of former CIA director Mike Hayden’s tweets are ill-advised — particularly this one, comparing Trump’s border-enforcement policy to Nazi concentration camps. But General Hayden is making anti-Trump political arguments, not intimating that he has knowledge of Trump corruption based on his (Hayden’s) privileged access to intelligence information (which he may or may not still have — I haven’t asked him). Hayden is absolutely entitled to speak out in that vein. Generally, he is a voice of reason even when one disagrees with him, and — let’s be real here — even his edgier tweets are pretty tame compared to the president’s.
Brennan, by contrast, speaks out in a nod-and-a-wink manner, the undercurrent of which is that if he could only tell you the secrets he knows, you’d demand Trump’s impeachment forthwith. (See, e.g., tweets here, here, and here.) Indeed, “undercurrent” is probably the wrong word: Brennan, after all, has expressly asserted that our “treasonous” president is “wholly in the pocket of Putin” and has “exceed[ed] the threshold of ‘high crimes and misdemeanors.’”
Such demagoguery would be beneath any former CIA director, but it is especially indecorous in Brennan’s situation. There are ongoing investigations and trials. Brennan’s own role in the investigation of the Trump campaign is currently under scrutiny, along with such questions as whether the Obama administration put the nation’s law-enforcement and intelligence apparatus in the service of the Clinton campaign, and why an unverified dossier (a Clinton-campaign opposition-research project) was presented to the FISA court in order to obtain surveillance warrants against an American citizen. Until these probes have run their course, Brennan should resist the urge to comment, especially in ways that implicate his knowledge of classified matters. (So should the president, but that’s another story.)
Quite apart from the ongoing investigations, there is considerable evidence that intelligence was rampantly politicized on Brennan’s watch as CIA director and, before that, Obama’s homeland-security adviser. For example, Obama-administration national-security officials deceptively downplayed weapons threats posed by Syria, Iran, and North Korea. As The Weekly Standard’s Stephen Hayes notes, Brennan directed the CIA to keep under wraps the vast majority of documents seized in the raid on Osama bin Laden’s Pakistani compound, precisely because that information put the lie to Obama-administration narratives about a “decimated” al-Qaeda, the moderation of Iran, and general counterterrorism success. (Since this week’s craze is the Trump administration’s use of non-disclosure agreements, we should add Hayes’s reporting that Brennan’s CIA presented NDAs to survivors of the Benghazi terrorist attack — at a memorial service for those killed during the siege — in order to silence them while the Obama administration’s indefensible performance was being investigated.) In 2015, over 50 intelligence analysts complained that their reports on ISIS and al-Qaeda were being altered by senior officials in order to support misleading Obama-administration storylines. Brennan himself was instrumental in the administration’s submission to the demands of Islamist organizations that information about sharia-supremacist ideology be purged from the training of security officials.
That last decision flowed logically from Brennan’s absurd insistence that the Islamic concept of “jihad” refers merely to a “holy struggle” to “purify oneself or one’s community” (see my 2010 column, here). It’s as if there were no other conceivable interpretation of a tenet that, as the late, great Bernard Lewis observed, is doctrinally rooted in the imperative of forcible conquest — which is exactly how millions and millions of fundamentalist Muslims, including those who threaten the United States, understand it. Airbrushing sharia-supremacist ideology in order to appease an administration’s Islamist allies may be fit work for political consultants; it ill suits a director of central intelligence.
Brennan, moreover, has proved himself irresponsible and untrustworthy. In 2014, when it first surfaced that his CIA had hacked into the computer system of the Senate Intelligence Committee staff investigating the agency’s enhanced-interrogation program, Brennan indignantly denied the allegation. “Nothing could be further from the truth,” he insisted. “I mean, we wouldn’t do that. I mean, that’s just beyond the scope of reason in terms of what we would do.”
Of course, it was the truth. An inspector-general probe established that the hacking had, in fact, occurred. And not just that; as the New York Times reported, CIA officials who were involved in spying on the Senate committee maintained that their actions “were lawful and in some cases done at the behest of John O. Brennan.” Brennan eventually apologized to senior committee senators. Then he handpicked an “accountability board” to investigate the matter. As I’m sure you’ll be stunned to learn, Brennan used the pendency of the accountability board’s examination as a pretext to avoid answering Congress’s questions; then the board dutifully whitewashed the matter, recommending that no one be disciplined.
The yanking of Brennan’s security clearance is not only warranted, it is way overdue.
Yet, by singling out the former CIA director, in unconcealed retribution for his anti-Trump political diatribes, the president undermines the legitimacy of his decision. This is important. Let’s put Brennan aside. There are 5.1 million people in this country with security clearances. That is insane. It is undoubtedly true that too much information in government is classified. Still, a great deal of it constitutes defense secrets that are classified because they need to be. If we’ve learned anything from the Snowden debacle, it is that we are extremely vulnerable because intelligence access has been given to people who don’t need it and/or shouldn’t have it.
There are obviously a few high-level security positions in our government, as well as positions in highly sensitive ongoing security operations, in which it makes sense for officials to maintain their clearances when they leave government service. These former government officials are a vital resource. They have knowledge of top-secret intelligence that factors heavily into policy-making and decision-making and that is unavailable to other advisers. Obviously, we want CIA director Gina Haspel, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, or National Security Adviser John Bolton to be able to tap into the wisdom of, say, Jim Woolsey, George Tenet, Bob Gates, or Leon Panetta. It is a great asset to the country to have that storehouse of institutional memory and sound judgment.
This, however, is the exception. For the overwhelming majority of officials, the presumption should be that security clearances lapse when they leave their government jobs. Intelligence access is a “need to know” proposition; upon exiting, a now-former official no longer needs to know. While I am skeptical, I am willing to assume for argument’s sake — as did the D.C. Circuit in Palmieri v. United States, the case David French cites — that a current government official or contractor may have some cognizable liberty interest in not having his security clearance arbitrarily revoked. I don’t, however, see any reason why a former official has any more right of access to the government’s defense secrets than to the desk in the office he has vacated.
As my own experience attests, this should not be a big deal. Because I worked on national-security cases in the Justice Department, I had a high security clearance. When I left, it lapsed — which was fine: They didn’t need me to have it anymore. Months later, I was asked to be a consultant regarding some war-on-terror legal issues confronting the Defense Department. To do the job, I needed my clearance back . . . and it took them just a few days to restore it. This was sensible: I had been subjected to searching background checks to get and maintain the clearance while I was a prosecutor, so it was not like they had to start from scratch; yet, before renewing my access, the government had an opportunity to assess whether I had previously adhered to the rules for handling classified information and whether any red flags had arisen since I left the Justice Department.
That is how it should be: When you leave, you lose your clearance, not as a penalty but because you don’t need it for official duties. (Being a better-credentialed and thus better-compensated cable-TV pundit is not an official duty.) If the government needs to consult you because of some unique experience you had as a national-security official, it should take very little time to reestablish the clearance. If complications arise that make it impossible to renew the clearance quickly, that may be a sign that it should not be renewed, and that the government should consult someone else.
Several weeks back, when it was first suggested that the president might start pulling the clearances of his political critics, I suggested in some interviews that paring back clearances government-wide was a good idea. I thought the president should convene an advisory panel of current and former national-security officials held in esteem on both sides of the aisle (there are many such people). They could then recommend standards for withdrawing clearances, from both former officials and others (such as non-government contractors), if the government does not need them to have access to classified information. Presumably, Brennan and many others would have fallen into the “no need to know” category. Their clearances could then have been pulled, along with many other former officials. The process would be a necessary housecleaning, not a partisan spat.
I wish the president did not so thrive on political vendettas. As a matter of objective fact, John Brennan should not have a security clearance. Does turning objective fact into good policy always have to look like Romper Room?