Soon after President Trump personally revoked former CIA director John Brennan’s security clearance, he made it known that he was considering the same action against others who have been outspoken critics of him or who paved the way for Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation by using the unverified “Steele dossier” to fuel suspicion of Mr. Trump’s presidential campaign.
Mr. Trump’s action cancelling Mr. Brennan’s clearance may be the first time a president took such action personally. His action has been attacked on many grounds ranging from the apparent fact that the action was purely political on a matter politics shouldn’t affect. Mr. Brennan and others shout that the president’s action violated Mr. Brennan’s First Amendment rights. The first criticism is correct but some of the others — especially the First Amendment claim — are risible.
No one has a constitutional right to a security clearance. The cancellation of Mr. Brennan’s clearance doesn’t deprive him of right to speak against the president. What it does is cut off his access to classified information.
Some of Mr. Brennan’s statements indicate that he had sympathetic people in the intelligence agencies who were informing him of classified information to feed his political rhetoric, not because they needed his advice on national security matters. That issue leads us to the substantive issues arising from the president’s action.
According to The Washington Post, more than five million people in government, industry and academia have U.S. security clearances, including about one and a half million who have top secret clearances.
Security clearances aren’t patronage. They must not be dispensed or revoked on political grounds. People should only be granted security clearances because they pass muster on defined trustworthiness criteria and because they need to access classified information in order to perform the tasks the government requires of them. There are dozens of legitimate reasons for cancelling clearances, none of which are political.
A security clearance isn’t a library card. Just because you have a clearance at a given level doesn’t mean you can access information on any topic that interests you. To gain access to information you must have a “need to know” directly related to the task your job entails. And when you leave that job your clearance is either transferred with you to a new job or, if you leave the government, it expires.
The problem is the policy that allows high-level government officials to retain their security clearances after they leave government service. Too many, including some threatened with clearance revocation by the president, still do.
A dozen former intelligence officials — including retired Gen. (and former director of both the CIA and the National Security Agency) Michael Hayden and former Defense Secretary Robert Gates — argue that Mr. Trump’s action was wrong because it was politically motivated and that politics is irrelevant in respect to security clearances. In that respect they were right.
The reason these officials are permitted to keep their clearances is that they remain available to consult with current government officials on classified matters. It’s well-nigh inconceivable that anyone in the Trump administration would want to consult with Mr. Obama, Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Brennan or anyone else in the strident anti-Trump camp.
Why should they continue to maintain their clearances? In short, they shouldn’t. If the president wants to deal with this problem he should abolish the policy which enables senior officials to keep their clearances rather than act personally against individuals.
There are a great many reasons why Mr. Brennan shouldn’t have retained his clearance. His trustworthiness is non-existent because, for example, he lied to Congress under oath more than once. Moreover, his CIA was the source of many politically-motivated leaks. Both of those facts are proofs that he was among the people in the Obama administration who politicized our intelligence agencies to an unprecedented degree.
That is one of the most dangerous effects of the Obama administration had and it was widespread. For example, in 2016 an investigation by a House-Senate joint panel determined that intelligence analysts at U.S. Central Command had been required to change the results of their analysis to reflect conclusions supportive of Mr. Obama’s stated positions.
Most, if not all, of our intelligence agencies were similarly infected with politics. Mr. Brennan’s CIA was the most powerful. Anyone who perverts intelligence for political purposes — or proves themselves untrustworthy by repeatedly transmitting classified information on an unsecured email system as Mrs. Clinton and her staff did — should at least have their security clearances revoked.
Intelligence gathering and analysis is one of the primary bases of national policy. If policy makers are informed by misleading intelligence they can’t make decisions that are based on reality and in our national security interests. If only politically-filtered intelligence is fed to our policy makers, their decisions can only be politically-faulty — and dangerous — foolishness.
Mr. Trump plans to revoke more security clearances for political reasons. He should, instead, focus on the policy issue that underlies his current anger: The wrong-headed policy that enables retired officials to keep their security clearances.
Our intelligence community suffered far too much politicization in the Obama years. Mr. Trump should concentrate on repairing that damage and not inflicting more.
• Jed Babbin, a deputy undersecretary of defense in the George H.W. Bush administration, is the author of “In the Words of Our Enemies.”