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Last week, a dozen former directors and deputy directors of CIA in Democratic administrations (Robert Gates made the list bipartisan) chastised President Trump for removing their former colleague John Brennan’s security clearance. This week, another 150 lesser former officials, nearly all Democrats, joined in.
“Never before” they trumpeted, had they “seen the approval or removal of security clearances used as a political tool.”
On what planet?
It Isn’t a “Free Speech” Issue
The following are the cardinal facts about security clearances in the American legal system—unchallengeable and unchallenged—followed by an equally incontrovertible account of how President Trump has departed from the presidency’s management of security clearances—but in a way entirely opposite from that which his “deep state” detractors allege.
First, blow away the smoke. The former directors allege Trump’s removal of Brennan’s clearance had “nothing to do with who should and should not hold security clearances—and everything to do with an attempt to stifle free speech.”
Note well: while reasonable people may disagree about the basis on which security clearances should be granted or removed, it is wholly distinct from the question of who has the authority to do so. About that, no disagreement is possible. The president of the United States has the sole, unquestionable, unrestricted authority to grant and withhold security clearances. Conflating those questions with that of all citizens’ freedom of speech confuses the public and suggests dishonestly that certain people have a right to special access to secrets. Not so.
In fact, the management of secrets is part and parcel of the president’s Article II powers over foreign affairs and as commander in chief of the armed forces. In the exercise of those powers, the president designates what those secrets may be (the power to classify) and confers or delegates the conferral of access to those secrets to those who he designates as having the “need to know” them—the granting of clearances.
It’s All About Who “Needs to Know”
Let there be no doubt: Neither John Brennan nor anyone else who had held a clearance during employment by the United States—myself included—has any right whatever to continue holding a clearance because none of us have any “need to know.” It is especially repugnant to the logic of security management to have persons who are not called upon officially to consult with the U.S. government nevertheless to poach, or to claim to have poached, in the nation’s trove of secrets and then to sell their opinions to the media on the pretense of being informed by facts that are beyond ordinary people’s knowledge.
Hence, whereas allowing former officials the courtesy of keeping clearances might have made some sense in a gentler past era, it makes no sense now. Trump should stick to the law: Clearances must be limited exclusively by “need to know.”
The claim that the management of clearances has been free of politics is an insult to Americans’ intelligence. It has always been politicized, and never, ever, more than it is today.
Eight years on the Senate Intelligence Committee staff exposed me to more instances of the system’s corruption than of its honest operation. Even the vaunted polygraph system is a Potemkin Village: If you are one of the “ins,” even if you are super-spy Aldrich Ames, you can count on passing a string of polygraphs. But if you have incurred any of the agencies’ dislike, you are unlikely to get a clearance. The investigation will never end, or they will just say no. And if you have a clearance and have made enemies among them, that clearance is toast. You need not do anything. In January 2017, the CIA pulled National Security Council aide Robin Townley’s clearance because, it said, he had been a critic of the agency.
Trump Has Been Too Deferential So Far
In fact, dozens if not hundreds of persons whom President Trump had chosen to fill his administration have been unable to take up their intended posts because the agencies have arrogated to themselves the power to withhold clearances. This is literally a revolutionary act on their part. By claiming the authority to grant and withhold clearances, the agencies have presumed to decide with whom the president may or may not take counsel.
In fact, their authority with regard to clearances is strictly advisory. They may—and should—present to the president whatever facts and conclusions they might have concerning anyone. But he, not they, have the sole right to decide. For good or ill, President Obama cleared any number of aides against whom the FBI recommended. But while President Trump complains about the agencies, he has deferred to them entirely. He should be faulted for this on constitutional as well as on prudential grounds.
By the same token, President Trump criticizes the agencies’ classification of a host of documents concerning the 2016 election, even as intelligence officials leak their contents and what they claim to be their contents. Playing “peek-a-boo” with (probably improperly) classified information is indeed disgraceful. It is doubly so because President Trump allows it to happen despite his unchallengeable power to decide what is properly classified and what is not.
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