Trump Escalates Feud With Former CIA Chief Brennan

Four questions on security clearances and their value in Washington.

Former Director of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency John Brennan testifies before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence in Washington, D.C. on May 23, 2017. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Former Director of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency John Brennan testifies before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence in Washington, D.C. on May 23, 2017. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

U.S. President Donald Trump threatened for months to revoke the security clearances of former officials who criticized his policies. This week, he made good on those threats, starting with ex-CIA chief John Brennan, who has described Trump’s policies and behavior in office as “treasonous” and “disgraceful.” Other officials Trump is targeting include former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and former FBI Director James Comey. As pundits debate the implications of the president’s decision, here are four questions about security clearances and their value in Washington.

Why do former government officials get to keep their security clearances?

Former senior officials have traditionally been allowed to maintain their security clearances and have them renewed when they expire, even if they no longer need them (a luxury extended to only a select few cleared professionals) so that they can continue advising administrations on classified matters. People who work at government agencies like the CIA or FBI accumulate deep knowledge in specific areas and it’s not unusual for them to be called back for meetings to share their analysis. “It’s a courtesy, but it’s also done to ensure a continuity of expertise,” said Bradley P. Moss, a national security lawyer at the Law Office of Mark S. Zaid, PC in Washington. But other experts say the practice only makes sense if the new administration is genuinely interested in hearing from former officials. Given Washington’s increasingly fractured political culture—and Trump’s contempt for the Obama administration—it’s hard to imagine his appointees asking their predecessors for advice. “If that’s not the case, then really what is the value to the public of allowing these people to maintain their access?” argued Sean Bigley, a federal security clearance attorney and founding partner of Bigley Ranish, LLP.

How much is a clearance worth?

For low- or mid-level officials, keeping the clearance after leaving a government job can have significant benefits. It makes them more employable in the private sector, particularly in defense-related jobs—and allows them to command higher salaries. According to Moss, a candidate for a job as a defense contractor can get up to $40,000 more annually than a person without one. Since many government and contractor jobs only consider hiring candidates who hold an active clearance—on average, it takes 543 days to process a top-secret clearance for a new employee—it allows for greater flexibility in a job market that has nevertheless become bogged down by a backlog crisisBut for Brennan, a former senior official with a high public profile, the security clearance probably has little or no financial value. “As a practical matter, it’s irrelevant to him because he’s at a point in his life where he doesn’t need a security clearance to get paid,” said Moss.

In that case, what’s the problem?

Trump is using his administrative powers as president to penalize a critic. In that respect, it sets a bad precedent. “This recent action from the White House is nothing short of an attempt to stifle free speech,” said Michael Morell, former acting and deputy director of CIA and host of the Intelligence Matters podcast. “Many of us are worried that this is intended to send a signal to both former and current officials. That signal is inappropriate and deeply regrettable.” In a public statement today, 60 former CIA officials said in response to Trump’s decision that the United States would be “weakened if there is a political litmus test applied before seasoned experts are allowed to share their views.” More worryingly, Trump has also threatened to use the measure against a current Justice Department prosecutor, Bruce Ohr, whose wife worked for the firm involved in producing the dossier on Trump’s ties to Russia, Fusion GPS. Revoking Ohr’s clearance would make him unable to perform his government duties.

Does Brennan have any recourse?

Brennan can appeal the decision through an administrative process. But a serving agency chief could veto the appeals process by declaring that it would damage “the national security interests of the United States by revealing classified information,” according to an executive order. Since there’s no precedent for a president revoking the security clearance of a former government official, it’s not clear if Trump would have that veto authority. “This is kind of the Wild West of the law,” said Bigley. “There really are very few rules and what rules there are, are in place because the president has put them there.”

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman

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