The latest Trump-era Washington brouhaha – over the President’s revocation of the security clearance of former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) chief John Brennan – makes embarrassingly clear that, however well former intelligence officials have safeguarded national security, they’re completely muddle-headed (at best) about when these clearances should and should not be denied. For none of their main arguments against Mr. Trump’s Brennan decision can stand up to any serious scrutiny.
The weakest claim made by these former members of the intelligence community, as stated by a letter from twelve former leaders of the nation’s intelligence agencies, and by a statement from sixty former CIA officials, is that Brennan’s loss of his clearance, and the administration’s threat to take similar actions against other former and current officials, is nothing more than “an attempt to stifle free speech” (to quote the leaders’ letter).
Seriously? Has Brennan been thrown into jail? Has he been arrested? Have any of the media outlets on which he’s been speaking out been warned by the government to shut him out or face the consequences? Has the Trump administration sic-ed the Internal Revenue Service on him? Of course not.
A variant on this argument has been made by President Trump’s other critics: that revoking the clearance could inhibit Brennan (and other outspoken former officials in the future) from expressing their views by jeopardizing their post-retirement employment prospects and therefore their incomes. According to this viewpoint, prospective victims would include both former officials whose security clearances give them a cachet that’s appealing to media organizations seeking (seemingly) authoritative commentators, and former officials who need such clearances to advise private sector defense companies on projects that entail classified work.
But if any former officials have marketed themselves to media companies based on their clearance-created access to inside information, then they’re either offering to divulge information already in their possession, or they’re insinuating that the clearances will enable them to reveal classified material that sheds light on ongoing controversies. Keeping the first promise would amount to committing a serious crime, and making the second pitch would be an act of fraud, since these figures have no ability to gain such information proactively.
Further, all these former officials receive government pensions, and all of them were well-paid enough during their careers to accumulate enough savings and invest enough of them in blind trusts to ensure highly comfortable retirements if they managed their personal finances even with minimal competence.
So it’s not as if either they retain their clearances or get thrown into the poorhouse. In fact, this argument sounds an awful like an unintentional admission that former intelligence officials (or other officials with such clearances) are likely to be intimidated by the prospect of losing maximum income – which doesn’t exactly attest to the strength of their principles.
Scarcely (if at all) stronger is the contention that the Brennan decision, and possible similar future decisions, is about his speech rights in the first place, and that President Trump’s overriding aim was meting punishment for expressing “unclassified views on what they see as critical national security issues” (as per the sixty former intelligence officials) or for expressing undesirable “political views” (as per the twelve former intelligence leaders).
Yet the White House statement announcing the revocation specified that the Brennan decision was based on his “erratic conduct and behavior.” Leave aside your opinions as to whether any of Brennan’s recent statements and actions do “cross the line.” Why did both the sixty former officials and the twelve former leaders ignore this accusation – except for brief acknowledgments that unspecified numbers of signers of both documents do not “concur with the opinions expressed by former Director Brennan or the way in which he expressed them” (to quote the former officials)?
Do they believe that a former official’s sense of judgment can never be taken into account in security clearance decisions. If so, what should “the line” be? Criminal behavior (i.e., misusing classified information)? That criterion would seem to ignore a wide variety of troublesome words and deeds that loudly signal deficient judgment. One obvious possible example – the Brennan charge that the President is guilty of treason that it turns out not even Brennan really believes. Talk about loose lips.
Moreover, are these former members of the intelligence community saying that a President shouldn’t be able to draw the line? If that’s the case, who or what should? Congress? Is there any reason to believe that the current generation of lawmakers would make clearance decisions superior to the President’s (at least in the eyes of most of the intelligence community)?
In addition, any number of former intelligence, defense, and foreign policy officials have criticized President Trump relentlessly since he declared his candidacy for the White House. Of them, only a handful have even made a short White House list of former officials whose still active clearances are being reviewed, or whose revoked clearances (due to firings for cause) might still be reinstated. (A final member on this list, Bruce Ohr, still works at the Justice Department.) Therefore, it’s impossible to take seriously the idea that some sweeping campaign is under way against Trump critics who used to be on the public payroll.
Indeed, here’s a prediction for six months from now: Brennan and other former intelligence and other officials will still be hammering the President for any number of crimes, outrages, and mistakes. And one of their main charges will still be that their free speech rights, and those of all their fellow Americans, are in imminent danger of being snuffed out.