One of two things happened on Thursday, depending on your point of view. Either some of the nation’s top retired military and intelligence officers publicly criticized President Trump in very strong terms—an uncharacteristic act for almost all of them—or the “deep state” is closing in.
The denunciations came in two waves.
Earlier in the day, retired Adm. William McRaven wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post, protesting Trump’s revoking of former CIA Director John Brennan’s security clearance and declaring—as if in an open letter to Trump himself—“I would consider it an honor if you would revoke my security clearance as well, so I can add my name to the list of men and women who have spoken up against your presidency.”
McRaven is a former Navy SEAL and commander of U.S. Special Operations Command who oversaw the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden. By all accounts, he is as apolitical as they come and had not publicly criticized Trump, or any previous president, until now.
The op-ed continued: “Like most Americans, I had hoped that when you became president, you would rise to the occasion and become the leader this great nation needs. … Your leadership, however, has shown little of these qualities. Through your actions”—which he later described as “McCarthy-era tactics”—“you have embarrassed us in the eyes of our children, humiliated us on the world stage and worst of all, divided us as a nation.”
One former senior intelligence official who read the op-ed sent me an email: “Takes my breath away. This is BIG!!!” Another wrote, again on background, that fellow officers—retired and active-duty—will take this as a sign of a major rupture in civil-military relations, brought on by Trump’s blatant disrespect for national security officials and the entire security system.
Then, late on Thursday night, 12 former CIA directors and deputy directors released a similar statement. By coincidence, the statement was written a few hours before McRaven’s op-ed appeared, according to two of the organizers.
The intelligence officials stopped short of asking Trump to revoke their clearances—that idea hadn’t come up in conversation. But like McRaven, they defended Brennan’s integrity and denounced Trump’s action as having “nothing to do with who should and should not hold security clearances—and everything to do with an attempt to stifle free speech.”
The statement went on: “We have never before seen the approval or removal of security clearances used as a political tool, as was done in this case,” adding that “this action is quite clearly a signal to other former and current officials” to stay silent. It noted that some of the signatories agree with Brennan’s long string of critical statements about Trump, while others do not. However, they all agree that decisions on security clearances “should be based on national security concerns and not political views.”
It was a bipartisan statement. Four of the signers served during Republican administrations; six served Democrats; two served presidents from both parties. More to the point, the vast majority of them are not accustomed to making political statements of any sort, much less direct criticisms of a sitting president.
The ex-officials include William Webster, Porter Goss, Gen. Michael Hayden, and John McLaughlin (those who served Republicans); Leon Panetta, Gen. David Petraeus, Gen. James Clapper, Michael Morell, Avril Haines and David Cohen (those who served Democrats); and George Tenet, and Stephen Kappes (who served presidents of both parties).
More significant, seven of the 12—Webster, Goss, Hayden, McLaughlin, Clapper, Morell, and Kappes—were career intelligence officials. One, Petraeus, was a career combat commander. [Update, Aug. 17, 2018, 12:10 a.m.: Just before midnight, a 13th ex-director, Robert Gates—another career CIA official who has served under several presidents of both parties—added his name to the statement. He had been inaccessible, until then.]
One of the signers told me that some who signed the statement did so reluctantly, given the long-standing principle that intelligence and military officers should remain apolitical. However, the consensus was that Trump’s behavior has gone beyond the pale.
No one could recall any precedent for either of the two protests. Trump and White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders have denounced Brennan in vicious terms. Sanders has also, in the last month, threatened to revoke the security clearances held by Hayden and Clapper for critical remarks they have made about Trump. It will be interesting to see if she and Trump decide to go after well-known war heroes like Petraeus and McRaven.
One of the signers told me the statement was circulated to all living ex-directors and deputy directors at noon on Thursday, with a request to reply by 6 that night. The names of four former directors are not on the letter: former President George H.W. Bush, John Deutch, Adm. William Studeman, and James Woolsey. It could not be ascertained, either by me or by one of the organizers, whether they declined to sign the statement or simply hadn’t seen it by the deadline.
Here is the complete text of the ex-intelligence leaders’ statement:
August 16, 2018
STATEMENT FROM FORMER SENIOR INTELLIGENCE OFFICIALS
As former senior intelligence officials, we feel compelled to respond in the wake of the ill-considered and unprecedented remarks and actions by the White House regarding the removal of John Brennan’s security clearances. We know John to be an enormously talented, capable, and patriotic individual who devoted his adult life to the service of this nation. Insinuations and allegations of wrongdoing on the part of Brennan while in office are baseless. Since leaving government service John has chosen to speak out sharply regarding what he sees as threats to our national security. Some of the undersigned have done so as well. Others among us have elected to take a different course and be more circumspect in our public pronouncements. Regardless, we all agree that the president’s action regarding John Brennan and the threats of similar action against other former officials has nothing to do with who should and should not hold security clearances – and everything to do with an attempt to stifle free speech. You don’t have to agree with what John Brennan says (and, again, not all of us do) to agree with his right to say it, subject to his obligation to protect classified information. We have never before seen the approval or removal of security clearances used as a political tool, as was done in this case. Beyond that, this action is quite clearly a signal to other former and current officials. As individuals who have cherished and helped preserve the right of Americans to free speech – even when that right has been used to criticize us – that signal is inappropriate and deeply regrettable. Decisions on security clearances should be based on national security concerns and not political views.
William H. Webster, former Director of Central Intelligence (1987-1991)
George J. Tenet, former Director of Central Intelligence (1997-2004)
Porter J. Goss, former Director of Central Intelligence, (2005-2006)
General Michael V. Hayden, USAF, Ret., former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (2006-2009)
Leon E. Panetta, former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (2009-2011)
General David H. Petraeus, USA, Ret., former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (2011-2012)
James R. Clapper, former Director of National Intelligence (2010-2017)
John E. McLaughlin, former Deputy Director of Central Intelligence (2000-2004)
Stephen R. Kappes, former Deputy Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (2006-2010)
Michael J. Morell, former Deputy Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (2010-2013)
Avril Haines, former Deputy Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (2013-2015)
David S. Cohen, former Deputy Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (2015-2017)
Correction, Aug. 17, 2017: This piece originally misspelled the last name of former deputy CIA director Michael Morell.