President Trump’s passivity regarding the agencies’ arrogation of power over security clearances amounts to acquiescence to a change from constitutional to bureaucratic government.
On July 8 The New York Times reported that President Trump’s adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner’s application for a security clearance had failed to report his contact with some Russians. The media found this ominous. I do too, but for a different reason.
The national security agencies of the executive branch are demanding that the president communicate about national security matters only with advisers to whom they issue clearances. Someone in the FBI had slipped Kushner’s questionnaire to the Times. Publication of the story underlined the threat to withdraw the clearance.
\Nor is this an idle threat. On February 11, the CIA withdrew the clearance of top National Security Council adviser Robin Townley, telling the press it refused to work with him because he had criticized the agency. Never mind that the president had appointed him. President Trump’s passivity regarding the agencies’ arrogation of power over security clearances amounts to acquiescence to a change from constitutional to bureaucratic government.
Who grants the security clearances necessary for doing official work on foreign affairs or defense? On what basis do they grant them? Does it matter? Most people obtain such clearances through the armed forces or other federal agencies after having answered a host of questions. Then the FBI, CIA, or the Industrial Security Services Company check their answers. Understandably, they assume these very agencies give and withhold such clearances by unchanging, objective criteria, and on their own authority. In fact, these executive agencies act with regard to clearances—as to everything else—as agents of the one and only person to whom the Constitution confides the executive power: The president of the United States.
This matters because the agencies’ criteria for clearances are anything but objective, especially the unofficial ones, above all because, for better or worse, when differences arise between any agency and any president, only the president is responsible to the voters.
A moment’s reflection clears the air: Who “clears” directors of the CIA or FBI? Answer: not the agencies. The president who appoints them to run the agencies clears them. He can also fire them. By what right does anyone in any agency tell the elected president of the United States with whom he can discuss what? If there were such a right, who would confer it, and to whom? The president of the United States’ right to command the executive agencies, especially on foreign affairs and defense, comes from Article II of the Constitution and from his election. Whoever takes over what he might know and from whom would be sovereign over him, the Constitution, and the voters.
Today, we are experiencing an unprecedented combination of assertiveness by bureaucracies allied with what we might call the bipartisan Party Of Government, supported by its progressive constituency in the country, and the Trump administration’s downright ignorance-cum-timidity.
Progressivism’s bedrock belief is that expert elites in and out of bureaucracies are the rightful rulers over unsophisticated voters. Making intelligence the very substance of presidential decision-making, leaving only the ceremonial final act to the Oval Office’s occupant, has been CIA’s ambition from the beginning.
Also, outright progressive partisanship, exercised in collusion with the major media, has been a constant at CIA from the beginning and at FBI since the late 1970s. Anyone who doubts this should read the memoirs of the intelligence community’s founding generation, e.g. Cord Meyer’s “Facing Reality.” The agencies’ hostility to Republican presidents (Bush 41 excepted) began with Richard Nixon (because of his exposure of Soviet spy Alger Hiss). The agencies, especially CIA, spared no effort to thwart and try to discredit Ronald Reagan. They warred overtly against Bush 43, through the Valerie Plame affair. But the objective was always limited to power over policy.
During the Obama years, however, the national security agencies became more fully integrated in the progressive Party of Government. Obama appointees found enough likeminded “professionals” willing to use the agencies’ tools to guard what they had come to regard as their rightful power over government against interlopers who claimed power only by virtue of an election.
Asserting the right to grant or withhold clearances to persons cleared by the president’s own choice is the ultimate manifestation of progressive ambition. The Trump administration’s needless acquiescence in this assertion combined with grousing about it defies explanation.
The above is but the tip of an iceberg concerning security clearances. Once upon a time, the questionnaire asked “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party or of any organization that advocates the overthrow of the U.S government?” Nowadays, the question concerns “extremist” organizations, by which more and more the agencies mean outfits deemed extremist by the Southern Poverty Law Center, like the Family Research Council, or even the Tea Party. In short, the security clearance processes’ changing criteria and growing arbitrariness is a problem deserving of attention.