I can’t believe I’m writing a column in defense of former Director of National Intelligence (DNI) James Clapper, former CIA Director John Brennan, and former National Security Agency (and CIA) Director Michael Hayden. Unfortunately, the current occupant of the White House has given me no choice.
On Monday, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders confirmed that President Donald Trump is considering revoking the clearances of former national security officials who have been critical of him publicly. In addition to Clapper, Brennan, and Hayden, Sanders said Trump is considering removing the security clearances of former FBI Director James Comey, former Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe and former National Security Adviser Susan Rice.
It’s no secret that I’m not a fan of Clapper, Brennan or Hayden. In my view, all three men disgraced themselves, and this country, with their misconduct and abysmal policy choices while in government. But whatever I may think of them, they remain, like me, a citizen of this country. As such, they have a constitutionally protected right to speak their minds about the issues of the day, and to do so without the threat of retaliation by the government they once served.
Our Authoritarian-in-Chief clearly believes otherwise. His threat to revoke any clearances still held by prominent individuals who have publicly criticized him is the very kind of petty politicization of national security that he has accused FBI and Intelligence Community (IC) officials of engaging in (i.e., the alleged Russiagate “witch hunt”). But in reality, Clapper, Brennan, Hayden and the others are not his real targets.
These high-profile, former federal officials can get by just fine without their security clearances. All have had, or will have, lucrative book deals, paid speaking engagements, paid consultancies with Fortune 500 companies, paid “contributor” gigs with major television networks, and so on. And if their clearances are revoked by Trump, they will become martyrs in the eyes of those who loathe everything Trump says and does.
The real losers in this are the professional civil servants elsewhere in America’s vast national security bureaucracy, especially anybody working at the Justice Department. Trump’s real target is the FBI agent in his mid-40s, with two kids on their way to college and a mortgage to pay, who happens to be working on the Russia investigation. Or, it could be his counterpart, a federal prosecutor who’s in the middle of her career and helping to guide the investigation. Trump’s crude message to the bureaucracy is clear: Do anything to embarrass or implicate me in a crime, and I’ll take away your meal ticket: Your security clearance.
It’s a viable threat. There’s no statute, much less a constitutional provision, that prevents Trump from revoking any executive branch employee’s security clearance—for any reason or no reason. And without a valid security clearance, you can’t hold a job as an FBI agent, FBI intelligence analyst, or attorney in the Justice Department—because those jobs require agents and lawyers to have access to sometimes highly classified information on potential suspects, particularly but not exclusively foreign national suspects. Like known Russian intelligence operatives.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Trump is making these threats now. The most recent indictment in the Russia investigation has only demonstrated just how widespread and coordinated Russia’s election interference operations were in 2016. And Trump’s “vassal”-like performance in Helsinki last week with Russian President Vladimir Putin has only made him all the more sensitive to all things related to Russiagate. He doesn’t have to directly threaten the FBI and other Justice Department personnel working on the Russia investigation for them to get the message that their clearances—and thus, their jobs—are his for the taking.
And it needn’t stop there. There are a multitude of federal boards and commissions dealing with issues that do not require a security clearance. What if a member of one of those says something Trump doesn’t like? Does the head of said board or commission then get a call telling them that Commissioner Jones is history because his First Amendment-protected speech criticizing Trump has “politicized” the board/commission?
Some have questioned why former senior officials like Brennan, Hayden and Clapper should be allowed to retain their clearances once they leave government. It’s a fair question that has a simple answer: Sometimes, they haven’t completely left government service. Current DNI and former Indiana Senator Dan Coats is a great case in point.
Long after he left the Senate, Coats was appointed to the National Commission on Research and Development in the Intelligence Community. So were several other former federal officials, as were then-current office holders like my then-boss, Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.), who was no longer on the House Intelligence Committee but remained engaged on IC oversight issues. The multitude of national security-related boards and commissions in the federal government often seek the advice of former senior officials—and to give that advice, those officials need active security clearances.
As I’ve said, I’m no fan of Brennan, Hayden, Clapper or some of Trump’s other ex-government critics. But his threats against them are really just a proxy attack on the people still in government service, especially those working on investigations Trump wants to end. Trump just doesn’t have the guts to publicly threaten them. Yet.