They’re prestigious, fiercely held and often highly valuable — and they’re under the microscope like never before.
Led by President Trump, critics have zeroed in on the proliferation of security clearances and cast them as “golden tickets” to high-paying jobs and positions of power and influence, holding them up as shining examples of the Washington carousel that allows the most exclusive establishment insiders to benefit from their status long after they have left public service.
Mr. Trump’s defenders say past administrations have gone far beyond the pale in their broadsides against his policies and have leveraged their security clearances to make partisan critiques seem more authoritative.
“It is especially repugnant to the logic of security management to have persons who are not called upon officially to consult with the U.S. government nevertheless to poach, or to claim to have poached, in the nation’s trove of secrets and then to sell their opinions to the media on the pretense of being informed by facts that are beyond ordinary people’s knowledge,” Angelo Codevilla, a former Foreign Service officer and senior fellow at the Claremont Institute, wrote this week on the conservative opinion news website AmGreatness.com.
Former top U.S. intelligence officials angrily reject the notion that they are cashing in on their access to classified information long after they have left public service. They say a person’s resume and life experience are far more valuable to consulting firms, lobbying shops and cable TV producers than a “top secret” security clearance.
Mr. Trump last week revoked the clearance of former CIA Director John O. Brennan after a string of public remarks, including one calling the president’s behavior treasonous.
Former officials say that any effort to systematically revoke the clearances of such political opponents could undermine the continuity of defense and national security contacts by upending an institutional memory pipeline.
But some concede that those who hang on to their clearances can gain “vast sums of money,” and there is a growing push in the White House and on Capitol Hill to overhaul the system.
“I think there’s no doubt that security clearances are a golden ticket in D.C.,” said Rick Manning, president of the conservative nonprofit group Americans for Limited Government, who argued in favor of revoking Mr. Brennan’s security clearance.
“But it’s not necessarily a bad thing,” he said. “People who get security clearances have earned them. … The challenge we have right now, however, is that there are some former Obama administration officials, including Brennan, who seem to be using information they have access to for partisan political purposes and to carry out score-settling.”
Mr. Trump made a similar argument this week, charging that Washington insiders have rushed to Mr. Brennan’s defense because they fear for their own wallets.
“Everybody wants to keep their security clearance, it’s worth great prestige and big dollars, even board seats,” the president tweeted.
A host of former intelligence officials interviewed by The Washington Times, however, said the matter is far more nuanced. They point out that the complicated web of defense and intelligence contracts, which they say are vital to the nation’s national security and to the federal government’s basic ability to function, relies on trusted men and women outside government with security clearances. Sensitive government contracts often specifically require a private company to have an individual with a security clearance on staff or serving on the board of directors.
“Yes, some of these people do make vast sums of money for this, but it’s not mercenary in the sense that just because you have a clearance you’re going to get paid a lot of money,” said retired Marine Corps Gen. John R. Allen, now president of the Brookings Institution.
“In fact, it’s the other way around,” he said. “These companies need these people on their board in order to qualify for contracting business that involves classified material, and this contracting contributes directly to national security.”
A reality of Washington
Lawmakers estimated this week that 5 million Americans have a clearance of some level, and many argue that there is little justification for that many people to have access to sensitive material.
“I think what’s astounding to me is realizing that there’s over 5 million people in this country that have security clearances, so there’s a lot of folks out there with important information,” Rep. Kristi L. Noem, South Dakota Republican and gubernatorial candidate, said Sunday.
Clearances are broken down into three levels: confidential, secret and top secret. Top-secret clearances are reviewed every five years, and the lower levels can be valid for up to a decade. It’s unclear exactly how many top-secret clearances are active or how many of those who hold them are not working for the federal government.
The White House National Security Council did not respond to questions about the figures or whether clearance procedures are undergoing review.
White House National Security Adviser John R. Bolton suggested recently that he offers a personal example of how a clearance can benefit an individual and a company.
“In my case, my clearance was active at the time when I was a member of a board of directors of a company that did classified work for the government and it was felt important that some of the directors be able to access that information,” he told ABC News on Sunday. “There were other times when I was a civilian that my classification was dormant, my security clearance was dormant, and I think that’s appropriate, too.”
Mr. Bolton suggested a review of the entire system of deciding who has access to sensitive information. High-level officials also have said the approval and review processes take entirely too long.
But former intelligence officials say the administration should tread carefully and that there is a benefit of allowing former government leaders — even those who are critical and outspoken — to keep their clearances.
“One of the things I did as CIA director was to formalize a process by which we made it official that all former directors would be able to retain their security clearances, and the reason we did this was because we used to pull these former top-level people in once or twice a year for a day to ask their views on things,” former CIA and NSA Director Michael V. Hayden told The Washington Times. “That in no way means these people can go back to the agency whenever they want to look at classified information so they can sound smart on CNN or sell themselves to some client.”
Indeed, former officials scoffed at the idea that TV networks, for example, specifically search out those with security clearances — though many familiar national security and intelligence commentators likely have them.
“When it comes to former high-level intelligence community officials becoming talking heads on television, it’s actually the title or former position that these people held, not their security clearance, that makes them so attractive to the networks,” said Shawn Turner, former director of communications for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
“It would be wrong to think that these networks believe these individuals have access to classified information, so we’re going to bring them under our umbrella on contract so we can have access to that classified information,” he said.
In most cases, analysts say, simply retaining a clearance after leaving government service doesn’t automatically mean regular access to sensitive information. Former officials told The Times that they no longer have access to classified material except when they are asked to consult with their successors.
“It is essentially a courtesy that does not have a lot of substance to it. Once people leave office, they are generally not receiving classified information. They just aren’t,” said Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists.
But critics say Mr. Brennan’s unusually harsh and personal attacks on the president may have changed the dynamic of the debate. Last month, Mr. Brennan called Mr. Trump’s performance at a press conference alongside Russian President Vladimir Putin “nothing short of treasonous.”
White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders cited that remark in announcing last week that Mr. Brennan’s security clearance would be revoked. She condemned what she called a “series of unfounded and outrageous allegations — wild outbursts on the internet and television — about this administration.”
Supporters of the president have argued that Mr. Brennan is using his status as former director of the CIA to attack Mr. Trump by implying that he knows classified secrets that suggest an improper relationship with Russia.
Analysts also suggest there could be a real danger.
“When John Brennan makes unsubstantiated allegations like Vladimir Putin could blackmail the president of the United States, and he says those things while he’s still holding a top-secret clearance, foreign spies upon whom the U.S. intelligence community relies to steal secrets on our behalf … might assume Brennan knows something the rest of us do not,” said Daniel Hoffman, a retired CIA senior clandestine services officer. “In my view, Brennan has been wildly irresponsible, but it would be [up to] the security experts to determine whether he, in fact, mishandled classified [information] or should no longer be trusted with classified information.”
A host of former officials have rushed to Mr. Brennan’s defense, and the former CIA director shows no signs of backing down.
“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,” Mr. Brennan tweeted of the president last week.