Should President Donald Trump revoke the security clearances of several former Obama administration officials who have been criticizing him? Is this a scandal?
The answers are, respectively, yes, and no.
Let’s start back with a prior question: why do former officials have security clearances anyway? I’m a former official myself, and when I left the National Security Council staff on January 20, 2009, my security clearance was not canceled. If memory serves, most or all of us from the Bush administration National Security Council kept our clearances for at least a year. Why? Because the incoming Obama White House thought that in the early months of a new administration, we might have some useful insights to impart—information about how past events had developed, or impressions of top people in foreign governments—and our successors wanted to be able to discuss classified information with us and elicit our views.
Our knowledge was a wasting asset, so there would be no reason to keep the clearances going forever. The foreign officials we knew best would typically be out of their own jobs as the months and years progressed, and the crises we handled would usually recede into the past.
I kept my clearance longer than one year, because I—like very many former officials—was occasionally asked to consult for some agency or another, or to participate in a war game or conference. My clearance has (I think) expired, and there’s no real reason for it to be renewed unless some agency decides it wants me to consult with it more actively.
Why do people like Susan Rice, John Brennan, James Clapper and retired General Michael Hayden have security clearances? The same reasons: so that classified information can be discussed with them to elicit helpful reactions. But there are two caveats here that suggest Trump might be right to revoke the clearances he is reviewing.
First, people who are not government officials and who are getting classified information may leak it, whether inadvertently or deliberately. All of us now get a blizzard of information and I’m sure I’m not alone in saying one cannot always recall the source. Was it on TV, or in a newspaper or magazine, or on the computer screen, or in a conversation? If you’re getting classified information, it can be indistinguishable from the rest of that blizzard, and there’s a reasonable chance you can’t recall if—for example—some line about what the German foreign minister said was classified or not.
The likelihood that this might happen and result in disclosure of classified information is magnified if you’re on TV frequently. Think of it this way: as a former official, anything you write is supposed to be cleared by your former agency. When I wrote a memoir of my time handling Middle East policy in the George W. Bush administration, I had to submit my manuscript to the government for review. In that case, the Department of State, NSC and CIA each had the opportunity to review it. If you’re on TV all the time—especially if you’ve actually signed a contract to be a commentator, as former CIA Director John Brennan has with NBC News—you have no chance for such reviews. You say what comes into your head, and the chances that you may inadvertently pass on something classified go up.
Second, your security clearance is not supposed to be useful to you; it’s supposed to be useful to the government. If you are attacking the administration every day—if you are literally calling the president a traitor, as Brennan has—there is very little chance that you will be consulted. Officials will keep clear of you, so you’ve destroyed the utility of giving you a security clearance.
I would add a third consideration. I cannot recall previous high intelligence officials acting the way Brennan and Clapper have in vocally assaulting the succeeding administration in a highly partisan manner. Think of Directors of National Intelligence John Negroponte, John McConnell and Dennis Blair, and think of CIA Directors like William Webster, Robert Gates, James Woolsey, John Deutch and George Tenet, and you’ll immediately see that what’s happening now is unprecedented. Brennan and Clapper may well believe that Trump is a threat to the country and as such, merits a break from the norms. They are entitled to their beliefs and can go on attacking—but they shouldn’t have access to classified information.
One has to assume that the partisan views Brennan and Clapper now express were the same views they held when in office, and it is impossible to believe such views did not affect their conduct of their offices. They have done real damage to the belief and expectation that partisan politics will not affect the way our intelligence agencies operate, or the advice they give. They have also led to a reasonable suspicion they might deliberately leak something that could in their view damage the administration or contradict its assertions.
Of course, former officials—including presidents—do not take a vow of silence upon leaving office. But former presidents have usually been circumspect in attacking their successors (Jimmy Carter is an exception), and former intelligence chiefs have generally avoided partisan attacks as well. In behaving this way, they are changing the rules, and Trump is justified in changing the rules to reflect their conduct.
Needless to say, lines have to be drawn. Security clearances should not depend on party loyalty and should not be routinely and immediately revoked when a word (or many words) of criticism are spoken.But it is reasonable to ask our highest former national security officials to consider the integrity of their former offices and agencies and ask that they decide carefully before entering the political and media fray.
They are free to choose that path, but if they do, they relinquish the perquisites that have traditionally gone with their long careers—like a security clearance.