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John Brennan’s Security Clearance

Former CIA Director John Brennan arrives for a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing evaluating the intelligence community’s assessment on “Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections” on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., May 16, 2018. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

Scarier than former CIA chief John Brennan losing his security clearance is the idea that he ever had one in the first place.

Perhaps to avoid the appearance of partisanship in pulling the security clearances of former intelligence chiefs, the Trump administration should now abide by some sort of universal nonpartisan standard. I suggest that the following sort of improper conduct, either during or after one’s tenure, might result in the loss of a security clearance:

1) Lying to Congress. Brennan lied to Congress on at least two occasions (cf. his denial of CIA surveillance of Senate staffer computers and the claim of an absence of collateral damage in drone attacks), and perhaps three (his absurd denial of knowledge of the seeding of the Steele dossier among government agencies). Democrats used to be outraged by Brennan’s deceit, and a few in the past had called for his resignation. Note that James Clapper, former director of National Intelligence, has also misled Congress, concerning NSA surveillance of American citizens. Clapper has admitted such (e.g., “the least untruthful” answer). Not lying to Congress is a pretty low bar to meet.

2) Accusations of Treason against a Sitting President. Brennan believes his denial of continued access to intelligence is an infringement on free speech. But it is really another low bar to ask a former CIA director to refrain from leveling unproven charges of treason against the current president of the United States (“nothing short of treasonous”; “When the full extent of your venality, moral turpitude, and political corruption becomes known, you will take your rightful place as a disgraced demagogue in the dustbin of history”). Such invective in theory could have foreign-policy consequences by branding the slander of presidential disloyalty with an imprimatur of a CIA security clearance.

Note again that James Clapper similarly flat-out accused the president of the United States of treason, in being a spy for the Russians (“I think this past weekend is illustrative of what a great case officer Vladimir Putin is. He knows how to handle an asset, and that’s what he’s doing with the president”). Clapper, of course, has no proof of that low charge. Nor has he produced any after his on-air accusation. If he is suggesting that his security clearance has allowed him access to incriminating evidence, then he should say so.

3) Hired Political Commentary. Former intelligence chiefs certainly have a perfect right to offer their expertise, even enhanced by their current security clearances, against or in support of a current administration, on both foreign-policy and intelligence challenges, and as guest experts on television, radio, social media, and in print.

That said, hiring oneself out as a political partisan to a network should be a different matter.

Had Brennan and Clapper now and then visited the networks to voice their concern about Trump’s cancellation of the Iran deal or moving the American embassy to Jerusalem, it would be one thing. But going on salary with MSNBC and CNN to profit from one’s emeritus status and security clearances to libel the president of the United States removes all appearances of disinterested commentary. As private citizens, they can do all that on their own time without any vestigial connections to the U.S. government.

An added note. When an intelligence official finds himself in a self-created mess, Washington agencies often have a tendency to rush to support of one of their own. But Brennan has long had a dubious record.

He dramatically reinvented himself after the 2008 election from Bush point man on terror alerts (cf. the “Orange Terror alert” of 2003), renditions, and enhanced interrogations — to Obama aficionado, now shocked, in Casablanca-style, by such supposedly clumsy and less nuanced methods that he once had endorsed.

When one collates Brennan’s politicized and often incoherent explanations on a number of key intelligence matters in various capacities between 2009 and 2016 (on the circumstances surrounding Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a.k.a. the “underwear bomber,” his confusing and changing narratives surrounding the bin Laden raid, and his bizarre and careerist-inspired description of jihad: “Nor do we describe our enemy as ‘jihadists’ or ‘Islamists’ because jihad is a holy struggle, a legitimate tenet of Islam, meaning to purify oneself or one’s community”), the portrait of a political contortionist rather than a professional and disinterested intelligence officer is confirmed.

All that can be said in condolence to John Brennan about losing his security clearance might be something along the lines of, “Try not to lie repeatedly to the U.S. Congress. Please do not allege that the current president of the United States is a traitor. And do not hire yourself out to partisans to issue near daily unproven invective, supposedly sanctified and monetized by your past tenure and present access to the highest level of covert U.S. intelligence.”

That was not too much to ask.

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