Why I Signed the Former CIA Officials’ Letter on Clearances: In Defense of Rule of Law

“And ye shall know the Truth, and the Truth shall make you free.” John 8:32                                                          

First, a disclaimer. I do not speak for any of the other signatories of the letter against President Trump’s decision to revoke clearances from former national security officials. I have been a lifelong (George C.) Marshall independent and remain one. I have voted for candidates for both parties and sometimes have not voted, when I could not in good conscience support either candidate. I’m not staying on the sidelines regarding Donald Trump because I know how history will judge him and all those who enabled him to weaken and divide our country. My objections to his actions in office have nothing to do with politics, but everything to do with defending our core principles as a nation, principles in which Trump very apparently does not believe.

I count myself among the skeptics concerning John Brennan’s organizational changes at the CIA, but such concerns have no bearing on the revocation of his clearance or those of other prominent national security officials. I signed the letter by former CIA officials repudiating the president’s actions because I am convinced that our nation is in a crisis. Trump abuses his power on a daily basis. He has convinced me that he lacks integrity in that he does not obey clear red lines between fact and fiction. He says whatever suits his purpose in the moment, rather than respect the value of being honest and forthright in making his case. Our president has demonstrated through his statements and actions—including attacks on the media, DOJ, FBI, and CIA — that he apparently does not respect the system of checks and balances that distributes power in a manner that has enabled the unique American governance model to survive and indeed thrive for over two hundred years.

In the shadow of history’s precedents, the essence of the security clearance issue is that John Brennan, like any American, must have an unabridged freedom to express his ideas. This is true whether he was a good or lousy CIA director, or whether I agree with him or not in the stridency of his criticism of the president. The same applies to all others that sit in Trump’s crosshairs. As citizens, these prominent former national security officials should be able to exercise their rights free of intimidation, especially from bullying by the president himself. In Trump’s own words, pulling John Brennan’s clearance was precipitated by the ex-CIA director’s role in bringing about the Russia investigation in 2016. Even if one can present a case, flimsy as that would be, that Brennan has based certain public statements on his knowledge of classified information, that argument has not been made as justification to revoke his clearances. In fact, the bulk of the list of Trump’s targets and the pattern of the president’s verbal attacks on each of them is highly consistent with an intention to silence and discredit witnesses able to bear testimony for charges of engaging in a conspiracy with the Russian government in the course of the Mueller investigation and to undermine the legitimacy of former officials who helped spur the investigation.

Were Trump’s concerns not related to Robert Mueller’s investigation into possible collusion with Russia by the Trump campaign and candidate Trump, why would the president also be singling out the set of past senior (and one current) officials who played a key role in uncovering Russia-gate? The president is also threatening to pull clearances for former CIA director Michael Hayden, former DNI James Clapper, NSC advisor Susan Rice, and others. A clue to his true concerns is the fact that the administration has not followed basic procedures in pulling Brennan’s clearances based on cause, such as violating well-defined criteria to hold a clearance. No such determination has been made by the competent authorities in Brennan’s case because no such conclusion can be drawn. It appears the same anomalous “procedure” is being followed in the case of the other officials on Trump’s list.

It is not a reasonable argument, outside of knee-jerk statements from partisan defenders, that the competent authorities (CIA and FBI) would consider pulling the former CIA director’s clearances due to his vocal criticisms of the president. Even if a case was made that Brennan had somehow crossed a line in exercising his right to free speech, no one in the administration has made it. This omission is surely a deliberate one on the part of the officials who are carrying out the president’s will regardless of the merits of his concerns and who know that they must now apply a similarly indefensible action against other patriots whose only sin was to defy the president for the higher purpose of serving their country.

A supreme irony of this affair is that the man (Trump) who has suddenly decided that defending secrets is his personal responsibility would probably not have been granted a clearance if he had to apply for one. His past publicly known actions alone raise sufficient doubts as to whether he could be entrusted with the nation’s secrets. A judgment on the president’s unfitness to hold a clearance does not take into consideration any determination of guilt as to whether he did or did not collude with the Russians. Evidence to substantiate Trump’s collusion with Putin is not yet known, at least publicly. However, it has been established that Vladimir Putin preferred Trump over Clinton and that Russian intelligence did in fact meddle in the election on Trump’s behalf. Substantial circumstantial evidence residing in the public domain suggests that Trump campaign officials did engage with and possibly conspired with Russian operatives. News reports suggest that Trump campaign insiders and family members were in contact with Russians officials for the purpose of responding to Russian overtures to help get Trump elected.

As a consequence, if the Mueller investigation is able to gather sufficient evidence to establish a conspiracy between the Trump campaign and the Russian government beyond a reasonable doubt, candidate Trump’s awareness of such an effort would constitute treason at least as that term is understood as a moral and ethical standard and a normative reason to convict all Americans who have committed espionage on behalf of a foreign power.  In recent history, we can count Aldrich Ames, Harold James Nicholson, Earl Pitts and Robert Hanssen in the numbers of CIA and FBI officers who betrayed our country to serve another. Surely, given our recent history in responding to Russian espionage, the American people would not be willing to abide conclusive evidence that their president conspired with Vladimir Putin to boost his own electoral prospects, for example, by accepting Russian intelligence assistance to destroy his opponent in a presidential election. And yet, Trump called on the Russians for precisely such assistance.

Further to the argument that the clearance issue is tied inextricably to Russia-gate: Is it mere coincidence that Trump engaged in the desperate act of pulling Brennan’s clearances around the same time he engaged in other desperate acts that trample upon the rule of law in an effort to undermine Robert Mueller? During the same week, a jury deliberated on former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort’s fate.  It is deeply disturbing that a president who proclaims his innocence in conspiring with the Russians felt compelled to comment directly on the Manafort case while it is in this phase of proceedings. What is Trump’s message — to Manafort, to the jury, to his supporters — in pondering a pardon for the defendant even before a verdict is rendered and suggesting that Manafort has gotten a bum rap? The President’s manifest disrespect for the institutions of justice is not accidental: It is a clear and deliberate expression of his intent to use the powers of his office not as they were intended, but to clear himself and close associates of a criminal wrongdoing that is increasingly apparent they committed.

Given the flammable conditions Trump himself has created in an effort to save himself from facing the truth, something had to give, eventually. The President of the United States has been soundly rebuked by a bipartisan consensus of the national security establishment. The spark was John Brennan, but the flame spread. Who would you side with, on matters of judgment: SEAL Commander Admiral William McRaven, or Donald Trump? The consensus of former top intelligence officials and prominent rank and file, or Donald Trump? The willingness of so many patriotic Americans who have dedicated their lives to serving the country to call the president out publicly — and sign their names to it — amounts to an unmistakable rising up against Trump’s form of rule. It is poignant that, as with so many events that ultimately define world history, the spark that ignited this flame would come at an unexpected time and place. Considering our long history of respect for the office of the president and the resiliency of the checks and balances of power, it is fitting that this revolt is being fought in the American tradition within the boundaries set by the rule of law and not with guns, but with pens. 

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.