Americas: United States
President Trump revokes security clearance of former CIA director John Brennan
President Donald Trump revoked the security clearance of John Brennan, the former CIA director under President Barack Obama, on August 15th, 2018 in what was roundly perceived as retaliation against a prominent critic of his administration, particularly criticism of the the administration’s attempts to downplay or undermine investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
Going back to July 23, 2018, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders stated in a press briefing that President Donald Trump was floating stripping security clearances from several former national security officials who have been critical of President Trump’s approach to Russian interference in U.S. elections.
Such a move was viewed as an unprecedented and politicized use of the security clearance process to exact reprisal against the President’s critics. Nevertheless, the Trump White House was prepared to defend it. "They've politicized, and in some cases, monetized their public service," Sanders stated. "Making baseless accusations of an improper relationship with Russia is inappropriate."
The list of former officials selected for revocation of their security clearances included former national security adviser Susan Rice, former National Security Agency Director Michael Hayden, former CIA Director John Brennan, former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, former deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe, and former FBI Director James Comey. The latter two individuals on the list, McCabe and Comey, already have had their national security clearances revoked according to individuals with knowledge on the matter.
The announcement followed Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) tweeting about his meeting with President Trump: "Just got out of WH meeting with @realDonaldTrump. I restated to him what I have said in public: John Brennan and others partisans should have their security clearances revoked."
It should be noted that Brennan’s description of President Trump’s performance at the Helsinki summit was very pointed: “It was nothing short of treasonous. Not only were Trump’s comments imbecilic, he is wholly in the pocket of Putin.”
The significance of retaining a security clearance for a former official is twofold: it allows them to provide counsel to those still in government, but the more lucrative benefit is a security clearance is attractive to security contractors looking to hire officials who have departed government positions.
President Trump considering revoking security clearances of former U.S. officials could be viewed as attempting to hurt their job prospects. Courts typically grant a wide degree of latitude to the president on matters of national security, so the former officials being targeted had very little recourse as far as opposing the President potentially stripping them of their security clearances.
Nevertheless, President Trump revoked the security clearance of John Brennan, the former CIA director under President Obama, on August 15th, 2018 in what was roundly perceived as retaliation against a prominent critic of his administration, particularly criticism of the the administration’s attempts to downplay or undermine investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders stated that the President’s grounds for his decision were Brennan’s allegedly “erratic” behavior and the perception that Brennan was using his security clearance “to make a series of unfounded and outrageous allegations.”
NBC News confirmed that Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, was not informed of this decision before Press Secretary Sanders announced it.
Brennan took to Twitter to condemn the Trump administration’s decision as part of a larger effort to quell criticism of the administration: “This action is part of a broader effort by Mr. Trump to suppress freedom of speech & punish critics. It should gravely worry all Americans, including intelligence professionals, about the cost of speaking out. My principles are worth far more than clearances. I will not relent.”
Brennan has been a relentless critic of the Trump administration. In June of 2018, he wrote a polemic op-ed where he compared Trump to "corrupt, incompetent and narcissistic foreign officials.” Following the Helsinki summit between President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, he decried Trump’s conduct at the summit as “nothing short of treasonous.” One day before Brennan’s security clearance being revoked was announced, he tweeted “It’s astounding how often you fail to live up to minimum standards of decency, civility, & probity. Seems like you will never understand what it means to be president, nor what it takes to be a good, decent, & honest person. So disheartening, so dangerous for our Nation.”
The day following the decision, Brennan penned an op-ed in the New York Times where he declared that Trump’s claims that there was no collusion were all “hogwash.” To Brennan, the only thing left to be determined was the nature of the collusion: “The only questions that remain are whether the collusion that took place constituted criminally liable conspiracy, whether obstruction of justice occurred to cover up any collusion or conspiracy, and how many members of “Trump Incorporated” attempted to defraud the government by laundering and concealing the movement of money into their pockets.” He called for special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in our elections to be free of political interference.
In a stunning act of solidarity, retired Navy Admiral William McRaven, former commander of U.S. Joint Special Operations Command from 2011 to 2014 who oversaw the operation that killed Al-Qaeda’s leader, Osama bin Laden, penned his own op-ed in the Washington Post and implored the President to revoke his own security clearance. “I would consider it an honor if you would revoke my security clearance as well, so I can add my name to the list of men and women who have spoken up against your presidency.” He also decried the President’s tactics as “McCarthy-era” and excoriated President Trump for having “embarrassed us in the eyes of our children, humiliated us on the world stage and, worst of all, divided us as a nation.”
This decision constituted a follow-through of a threat to revoke the security clearances of former intelligence officials that the administration made weeks prior. In late July, Press Secretary Sanders stated “The president is exploring the mechanisms to remove security clearances because they politicized, and in some cases monetized, their public service and security clearances.”
This plan initially arose following Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) suggested the idea of revoking Brennan’s security clearance, which he tweeted about the same day the administration publicly floated this idea: “Just got out of WH meeting with @realDonaldTrump. I restated to him what I have said in public: John Brennan and others partisans should have their security clearances revoked.”
The original list of officials whose security clearances were being reviewed for potential revocation included former CIA Director John Brennan, former CIA Director Michael V. Hayden, former National Security Adviser Susan E. Rice, former Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr., former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, and former FBI Director James B. Comey (although McCabe’s and Comey’s security clearances were actually already revoked by the time this list became public).
When floating the possibility of revoking security clearances of former intelligence officials was first announced by the Trump administration, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI-01) downplayed this threat, saying that Trump was "trolling people" and declared Trump wouldn’t make good on his threat.
The security clearance process stems from the recognition that the President of the United States is the commander in chief of all armed forces according to Article II of the U.S. Constitution, and the theoretical last word on who is granted access to information. However, the President personally weighing in to determine who has security clearance was unprecedented as apparently no prior President has personally intervened in this process. What a security clearance grants an official is called “eligibility to access”, which is to be distinguished from “access” to classified information. Eligibility for access remains in effect for a number of years depending on the classification level which an individual was approved for eligibility to access. Access is the next step an agency takes to allow an individual with a security clearance to view and utilized classified information. The revocation of Brennan’s security clearance constituted the loss of eligibility to access.
The standard process of revoking security clearance typically entails the agency initiating a proceeding that begins with revoking the security clearance based on factual claims at issue, but allowing the individual the possibility to appeal the decision within the framework the agency offers. The President personally intervening to revoke Brennan’s security clearance left Brennan with little recourse for appeal, and given that the U.S. judiciary has largely concluded that it has no place weighing in on the substance of security clearance approvals and revocations, this made the possibility of appeal even more unlikely.
Since former intelligence officials leverage their security clearances to secure lucrative jobs following their departure from their government positions. The President revoking an official’s security clearance effectively weakens that official’s ability to secure lobbyist or consulting jobs pertaining to national security.
Republicans such as Senator Rand Paul lauded the decision, saying in a statement: “He participated in a shredding of constitutional rights, lied to Congress and has been monetizing and making partisan political use of his clearance since his departure.” Democrats such as Adam Schiff vituperatively denounced the decision: “In adding John Brennan to his enemies list, Trump demonstrates again how deeply insecure and vindictive he is — two character flaws dangerous in any President. An enemies list is ugly, undemocratic and un-American. I also believe this action to silence a critic is unlawful.”
In an interview with the Wall Street Journal on the same day Brennan’s security clearance was revoked, President Trump stated that Republicans were not immune from security clearance reviews, as he said he “would put a Republican on, too, if I thought they were incompetent or crazy.”
Denise Youngblood Coleman, PhD.
President and Editor in Chief
-- Aug. 19, 2018