War Stories

Trump’s Petty, Dangerous Campaign Against John Brennan

The former CIA director doesn’t really need his clearance, but it’s a dangerous warning sign to others.

Former CIA Director John Brennan testifies before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence on Capitol Hill on May 23, 2017.
Former CIA Director John Brennan testifies before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence on Capitol Hill on May 23, 2017.
Photo edited by Slate. Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images.

Sometimes Sarah Huckabee Sanders must wonder why she bothers. On Wednesday night, the White House spokeswoman issued a statement on why President Trump revoked former CIA Director John Brennan’s security clearance—a preposterous statement claiming that Brennan’s criticism of Trump had nothing to do with it—only to find Trump telling the Wall Street Journal that this criticism had everything to do with it.

Sanders had cited “risks posed by” Brennan’s “erratic conduct and behavior,” which are “wholly inconsistent with access to the nation’s most closely held secrets.” But Trump blurted out what’s clearly the real reason: “I call it the rigged witch hunt, [it] is a sham. And these people led it. So I think it’s something that had to be done.”

In other words, pulling Brennan’s clearance was political revenge for his role in the investigation (or, as the president describes it daily, “the rigged witch hunt”) of Trump’s collusion with Russia. Of course, Brennan hasn’t “led” this probe; nor have the other retired intelligence officials that Trump lumps together as “these people”—mainly former CIA and NSA Director Michael Hayden and former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. They have merely noted, sometimes in dramatic language, that Trump’ words and actions suggest collusion or worse.

And that’s the point: In Trump’s mind, criticizing him—especially calling into question his legitimacy as president—constitutes disloyalty to the country. (L’etat, c’est moi.) And his paranoia about enemies justifies an enemies’ list. (Even Richard Nixon didn’t interfere with the process of bestowing or revoking his enemies’ clearances.)

Brennan has been particularly vociferous in his criticism, for instance tweeting in July that Trump’s obsequiousness to Russian President Vladimir Putin, at their post-summit press conference in Helsinki, was “nothing short of treasonous.” This might be grounds for pulling Brennan’s clearance if there were signs that his anger stemmed from some condition that made him a security risk (mental instability, heavy drinking, drug use, etc.); but if there’s no risk, there are no grounds—and no one is even pretending that Brennan is prone to spilling state secrets.

The loss of his clearance is unlikely to hurt Brennan personally. He does little, if any, classified consulting work; the front-page publicity of Trump’s move, and the ensuing widespread outrage, will probably boost his speaking fees and next book advance. But former officials who do rely on clearances for their livelihoods may now hold back from speaking their minds. And in any case, the politicization of clearances is a danger sign of creeping authoritarianism: It’s another line between proper procedures and lawlessness that Trump has crossed.

If Trump hadn’t picked out Brennan in particular, if he’d said, “Officials should lose their clearances when they leave the job that requires them, and let’s start with John Brennan,” the move would have been grossly transparent, but at least it might have triggered a legitimate debate. More than 1 million people have Top Secret clearances, which is one reason so many documents are stamped Top Secret—too many on both counts.

Some people do give up their clearances upon their departure. (When ousted FBI Director James Comey was put on a list of people who might have their clearances stripped, Comey said he’d already given his up.) Those who retain their clearances do so for various reasons. Some do it to get jobs as consultants in firms that do classified work. Some do it to serve on advisory boards at the Pentagon or inside intelligence agencies, where secrets are discussed. Many senior ex-officials are called in, by their successors, for informal consultations on some current problem or crisis to share their experiences and insights. Neither Trump nor Sanders seems to have given a thought to the risks of losing that sort of service.

In July, when Sanders first warned that Trump might revoke some critics’ classified privileges, she said that they’d “politicized and in some cases monetized their public service and security clearances.” First, this was a laughable accusation from the spokeswoman for a man who has monetized every moment of his presidency, promoting his hotels and golf courses, even charging the Secret Service for rooms and golf-cart rentals when agents accompany him to his many weekend escapes.

Second, none of these critics—Brennan, Hayden, Clapper, Susan Rice, and others whose names have come up in this context—have based their remarks about Trump on classified documents. They may have gone political—unusual for some of these figures, who have served several presidents of both parties—but their security clearances have not been “politicized.”

Third, and most serious, this whole business crosses a serious line. Loch Johnson, professor of public and international affairs at the University of Georgia and author of several well-regarded histories of the intelligence agencies, said in an email, “No senior official I can think of has had his or her clearance stripped, unless found guilty of violating rules related to the unauthorized disclosure of classified information.” No one has accused Brennan of any such violations; the same is true of the other former officials who Sanders said may receive the same treatment.

In Johnson’s recollection, the only senior official who has lost his clearance over a political dispute is J. Robert Oppenheimer, director of the project that built the atom bomb during World War II. The Atomic Energy Commission stripped Oppenheimer of his clearances, in 1954, for opposing development of the much more powerful hydrogen bomb—though he also had communist relatives, a fact that the AEC invoked as cover for its real motive.

But in that case, it was the AEC—the agency entrusted with atomic secrets—that revoked Oppenheimer’s clearance, not President Dwight Eisenhower. And Oppenheimer was granted a formal hearing to review the decision. If Brennan did deserve to have his clearance pulled, the CIA or the national intelligence directorate should have made the decision. Neither agency was even consulted on the matter.

It was Sen. Rand Paul who first advised Trump to punish critics like Brennan, Hayden, and Clapper by revoking their clearances. Paul applauded Trump on his move against Brennan, as did Sen. Ron Johnson, chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee. (It may be worth noting that Johnson was among the senators who visited Moscow for a friendly meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on July 4. Paul visited Moscow earlier this month during a trip aimed at “supporting President Donald Trump engaging around the world.”)

For Paul, it’s all about political punishment. That’s how he pitched it to Trump, that’s how Trump took the pitch, and in his brief impromptu conversation with the Wall Street Journal, he made no bones about it. Despite Sanders’ attempt to make the move seem motivated by concerns for national security, it was driven—like most of the president’s moves—solely by an obsession with the security of Donald Trump.