The CIA has denied a security clearance to Trump National Security Council (NSC) official Robin Townley without any allegation, much less evidence of disloyalty to the United States. Quite simply, it is because the CIA disapproves of Mr. Townley’s attitude toward the agency, and this is unprecedented. President Trump appointed Mr. Townley to coordinate Africa policy at the NSC. The CIA did not want to deal with him. Hence, it used the power to grant security clearances to tell the president to choose someone acceptable to the agency, though not so much to him. This opens a larger issue: Since no one can take part in the formulation or execution of foreign or defense policy without a high-level security clearance, vetoing the president’s people by denying them clearances trumps the president.
Hence, if Mr. Trump does not fire forthwith the persons who thus took for themselves the prerogative that the American people had entrusted to him at the ballot box, chances are 100 percent that they will use that prerogative ever more frequently with regard to anyone else whom they regard as standing in the way of their preferred policies, as a threat to their reputation, or simply as partisan opponents. If Mr. Trump lets this happen, he will have undermined nothing less than the self-evident heart of the Constitution’s Article II: The president is the executive branch. All of its employees draw their powers from him and answer to him, not the other way around.
Using security clearances for parochial purposes — usually petty ones — while neglecting security, never mind counterintelligence, is an old story at the CIA which I got to know too well during eight years overseeing the agency as the designee of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s budget chairman. Because I did my quality control job vigorously, and because I placed on the budget cut list some of the many outside contracts that seemed corrupt, the agency made repeated attempts to withdraw my top-level, cross-cutting security clearances. After I left the Senate staff for Stanford, when the Naval Postgraduate School asked me to teach a highly classified course on signals intelligence, the school’s security office asked the CIA for my clearances. The bureaucrats there said they had never heard of me. I had to call Director of Central Intelligence Bill Casey, who ended up phoning them in personally to a startled Navy chief.
The CIA uses pretense about security to insulate itself from criticism, to protect its own, and to intrude into policymaking. Security against foreign intelligence ranks low in its priorities. For near a decade, its bureaucrats refused to look into obvious evidence that their own Aldrich Ames had sold out America’s entire agent network in the Soviet Union. Moreover, according to its inspector general, they continued to pass reports from that network to the president because they happened to agree with the direction in which these KGB-produced reports were pushing U.S. policy. The CIA also uses secrecy to avoid responsibility. It crafts the conclusions of its reports specifically to be leaked to The New York Times and The Washington Post, while making sure that the thin or nonexistent facts behind those conclusions never see the light of day.
The CIA’s denial of a clearance to a presidential appointee minus good cause, however, breaks new ground and shows truly revolutionary boldness. Traditionally, bureaucrats have used sticks and carrots to convince political appointees to play along lest they suffer unpleasantness. Thus, presidents have ended up having to choose between suffering appointees who have “gone native” or replacing them. Now, the CIA’s denial of Mr. Townley’s clearance removes all subtlety by demanding that Mr. Trump appoint only “natives.” If Mr. Trump indulges that demand for self-emasculation, the message will go out to all agencies: They need pay no attention to what political appointees tell them, and they need fear no retribution for this or for pressuring appointees in any way they want. The message to the people who Mr. Trump has appointed or who are considering working for Mr. Trump is just as clear: You have no choice but to make yourself acceptable to the bureaucrats because, if you don’t, they will hurt you and the president will not help you. This cannot help but skew the pool of potential members of the Trump administration.
We cannot know nor does it matter why Donald Trump seems to be deferring to bureaucrats who have gone out of their way to delegitimize him. But we can be certain about the kind of dynamic engendered by deference in the face of assaults.
• Angelo M. Codevilla is professor emeritus of international relations at Boston University.