Security Clearance Removals and Presidential Politicization of Intelligence

The White House’s statement that it has “begun the mechanism to remove security clearances” for former senior intelligence officers General Michael Hayden, General James Clapper, and John Brennan should be judged in the light of the President’s disturbing pattern of silencing democratic forces — individuals, groups and institutions — that possess the temerity to challenge the authority and power of Donald Trump.

It would be hard to come up with three other names of career intelligence officers with the legacy that these three left over the course of their careers. Jim Clapper dedicated over fifty years of his life to serving his country as a soldier and intelligence officer, culminating in serving with distinction for almost a decade as the Director of National Intelligence. He is highly respected throughout the community as someone who unwaveringly refrained from assuming political positions or expressing partisan loyalties. Mike Hayden served at every level as an intelligence officer, from a junior defense attaché to heading the two largest intelligence agencies, CIA and NSA. John Brennan was a chief of station in a strategically important country and held various senior positions in the agency before being appointed as a career CIA officer as director of the agency.

All three could have no doubt made their fortunes in the private sector if they had chosen that path. But they chose a different path, and for that choice, the country owes them much.

Considering the unimpeachable record amassed by his antagonists, the President has set a chilling precedent in threatening them with prejudicial action that could negatively impact on the confidence of intelligence officers in performing their duties free of threats and intimidation. The stakes are high: When intelligence fails to maintain its independence and objectivity from political influence, it ceases to be a guarantor of our nation’s security and becomes instead a tool of authoritarian tendencies, as is the case in other countries.

Intelligence officers must be doing some serious soul-searching in responding to this loyalty test put to them by Donald Trump: What was the wrong these senior officials committed that would justify having their clearances revoked? Did they display behavior that calls into question their suitability to hold a clearance? Is exercising one’s free speech in calling out the president a legitimate reason for revoking a clearance? If so, who is immune to the president’s reach when he is unhappy with the intelligence and law enforcement community?

It is true that a security clearance is more a privilege than a right. Many retired officials in the national security community continue to hold clearances after retirement. Some are hired as contractors to help fulfill current intelligence requirements. Others decide to pursue opportunities in the private sector, often more lucrative financially, that don’t require a clearance. The point is that a clearance is retained when a government sponsoring agency independently determines that maintaining an individual’s clearance is useful in the performance of its mission. In this context, what government entity would not want to enlist the services of Mike Hayden, Jim Clapper, or John Brennan if they were so inclined to assist?

For these three individuals specifically, maintaining a clearance is not about making money but about giving back to the country they love and continue to serve. In this regard, it is common for senior officers to retain their clearances upon retirement in order to offer advice on certain issues and questions. Quite often, this assistance is rendered on a pro bono basis, e.g., by sitting on intelligence advisory boards, including the president’s own advisory board, and reviewing and commenting on national intelligence estimates. Our intelligence community would be less effective if it were not able to draw upon the retired cadre to continue to contribute their relevant expertise to the fulfillment of US national security objectives.

Thus, it is not a question of whether the president has the authority to pull clearances. It is a question of his intent and motivation in making threats to do so.

Consider what the President has stated about those who define the law (Department of Justice); those who are charged with enforcing the law (FBI); and those who are charged with the sacred trust of guarding the nation’s secrets concerning foreign threats and adversaries (CIA).

This began when Trump was president-elect, for example with his comparing the U.S. intelligence community to Nazi Germany, and it has proceeded at pace, including his mocking the former FBI Director in the Oval Office meeting with Russian officials, challenging Robert Mueller’s ethical commitments, rhetorically bludgeoning the Attorney General, undermining the Justice Department’s Inspector General, to name a few examples.

For the true offense—the crime of speaking truth to power—the president is not content to allow the facts to speak for themselves through open discourse; he is afraid of the facts. Taking the president’s singling out these intelligence officers along with two senior FBI officers and a former National Security Advisor who have been identified by the President to have their clearances revoked, the most worrisome aspect of this baseless exercise of presidential authority is that it is part of a pattern of intimidation pursued personally by the president against anyone who has the courage to challenge him, but especially persons and institutions that bear responsibilities to apply checks and balances on executive power and authority. 

About the Author(s)

Rolf Mowatt-Larssen

Senior Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, former Director of Intelligence and Counterintelligence at the Department of Energy, former Chief of the Europe Division in the Directorate of Operations, former Chief of the Weapons of Mass Destruction Department, Counterterrorism Center.