Elephants in the Room

The Real Reasons Trump Was Wrong to Revoke Brennan’s Clearance

The president is destroying national security norms. Former officials like me need to speak up.

Then-CIA Director John Brennan testifies during a Senate committee hearing on Capitol Hill on June 16, 2016. (Evy Mages/Getty Images)
Then-CIA Director John Brennan testifies during a Senate committee hearing on Capitol Hill on June 16, 2016. (Evy Mages/Getty Images)

On Monday, an ad hoc group of former U.S. national security policy advisors and intelligence officials released a group letter decrying President Donald Trump’s decision to revoke former CIA Director John Brennan’s security clearance, along with reports that he is planning to revoke the clearances of other people he opposes on policy grounds.

Read the letter and the current list of signatories here.

I signed the letter as well, and I would like to explain why. But before I get to that, let’s clear away the underbrush.

First, letters like this are always problematic, and this one is no exception. What you gain in amplitude by joining your voice to others you lose in precision, as the text reduces the point to a lowest-common-denominator vagueness, or worse, is worded in a way that does not fully capture your individual opinion. That is why, as a general rule, I have not signed group letters even when I agreed with the overall thrust of the message.

In the era of Trump, letters like this can even be counterproductive. I signed the key anti-Trump letters during the campaign, including one published by Foreign Policy (see here, here, and here), and I stand by those critiques, which subsequent events have amply vindicated. Nevertheless, candidate Trump was able to turn those letters into a campaign rallying cry—at a talk that I hosted at Duke University last fall, former White House chief of staff Reince Priebus claimed the letters actually helped Trump peddle his anti-establishment message. More problematic still, the administration used those letters as a blacklist: When candidate Trump became president, the list meant that the administration had a much shallower pool of qualified and capable staff on which to draw. The result was a rocky start that was even worse than it likely would have been if Trump had been able to access the full resources of the Republican Party.

Here again, the point is a nuanced one that is often lost on cable TV. Those of us who signed the letters knew that we were putting ourselves on a list that the Presidential Personnel Office would monitor so as to make sure the plum positions went to their full-throated supporters and not to us. (I, personally, did not want to join the administration, even though I encouraged many people I respect to do so and have done what I could to help the team from the outside.) While I think it was foolish of the Trump team to maintain that restriction as long as they did—and I applaud their apparent decision to relax the restriction by appointing a letter-signer to a senior State Department post—it was anything but a surprise. It was, however, harmful to the administration’s early efforts and so belongs on the negative side of the ledger when assessing the effectiveness of group letters.

Second, as this most recent letter hints at rather broadly, and as Kori Schake’s thoughtful commentary makes clearer, Brennan might not be the best choice for saintly martyrdom. I had strong reservations about some of his actions during the Obama administration, and I think his anti-Trump rhetoric has been needlessly hyperbolic and inflammatory. To be sure, on this latter point he is merely echoing Trump’s own lamentable style, but I do not agree that the best way to fight bombast is with more bombast.

Third, I would argue that the president likely had the legal authority to strip Brennan’s clearance (I say likely because, as this Lawfare article by Bradley Moss describes, the way in which Trump unilaterally revoked the clearance might invite legal challenge, and, as Brennan indicated over the weekend, Trump’s victim is inclined to issue that challenge in court). Nonetheless, everyone involved, including Brennan himself, would agree that a security clearance is a privilege, not an entitlement. This is a question of what is best for the country and what norms are helpful in smoothing the governance of national security, not what is constitutionally permissible.

What is the problem, then? My concern is that the president took this step fully intending it to be political payback to a critic. While the official White House statement included some specious language about the “risks posed by [Brennan’s] erratic conduct and behavior,” in fact the effort against him was not justifiable on those terms. If that had been a sincere concern, the White House could have directed the CIA to conduct a security review of Brennan. Had the CIA conducted such a review and concluded Brennan was a risk, the administration would have commanded the high ground. But that transparently false spin barely lasted a news cycle because Trump followed up by conceding he had ordered the revocation as payback for Brennan’s role in raising concerns about Russia’s interference in the 2016 elections, which led to the investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller that Trump loathes.

That is why arguments by otherwise serious people like my friend Elliott Abrams simply miss the point. Trump’s actions here are not some high-minded effort to protect national security by preventing careless people from having access to classified material. Nor are they merely an attempt to tidy up the messy files of too many people holding security clearances, as National Security Advisor John Bolton claimed.

Rather, as Trump has candidly admitted, this was an attempt to use the power of the presidency to punish someone he did not like on policy grounds. Worse, as multiple reports have suggested, it may also have been an attempt to create a flock of tethered goats to be ritually sacrificed as needed to distract from unwelcome press scrutiny.

So, let’s be clear about what happened. Trump violated a long-standing norm that, to my knowledge, no other president ever transgressed—and he did so not accidentally but with premeditated malice. In a period when there is already too much politicization of national security, this was the president using the power of his office and his command on the public attention to make that problem so much worse.

And worse it will get, unless wiser heads in the administration can talk the president down. For starters, a predictable but pernicious result of this move may be to intimidate intelligence and national security professionals currently serving in government. The not-so-subtle message that Trump’s action sends: Only say things that your president agrees with, or risk losing your security clearance. For example, consider how this puts intelligence analysts who might write an assessment that falls afoul of the White House’s party line on Russia’s ongoing meddling in the U.S. political process, or on North Korea’s continuing advances in its nuclear weapons program, in a terrible position.

Moreover, offensive actions provoke overreactions. And overreact, I am afraid, may be just what retired Adm. William McRaven did when he wrote his own impassioned response to Trump’s decision. McRaven’s op-ed was passionate, eloquent, and, because of his stature as the architect of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, impossible to dismiss as an unpatriotic attack on the president (but, I fear, that does not mean the trolls won’t try to do the impossible).

As Schake outlines, however, McRaven’s piece was problematic from a civil-military norms point of view. Most civil-military experts agree that even in retirement, the highest-ranking members of the military should either run for office themselves (thus becoming transparently partisan), or they should remain publicly apolitical and refrain from taking political action that has a strong partisan effect—such as accusing the president of McCarthyism. The reason is that their authority and the public respect they command derive from their apolitical service in uniform. The military must itself be a nonpartisan institution for civil-military relations to function well. When prominent retired military officers become partisan voices, that raises doubts about the nonpartisan nature of the current serving military. McRaven’s well-intentioned but hyperbolic reaction runs the risk of goading Trump into making further inappropriate steps so as to reassure himself that the current uniformed military are rallying to him and not to retired war heroes like McRaven. And on it will go.

Indeed, this is precisely what Brennan’s own political commentary did. Intelligence officers, like the military, have a professional code of nonpartisan service. And while retired intelligence officers violate that code about as often as the military does, it has the effect of politicizing relationships with the current serving intelligence community—as evidenced by Trump’s hyperpoliticized interactions with the intelligence community to date.

Does that mean no one should hold the president accountable? Quite the contrary: Former political appointees such as myself are precisely the people who should speak up when an administration violates norms. And when it is the leader of your own party doing the violating, it is even more important to speak up.

Hence my decision to sign the letter. I should speak up so others do not have to. (And I wish the organizers of this most recent letter had waited a bit longer to get more of my fellow Republicans to sign it so as to more clearly signal that national security experts on both sides of the aisle found the president’s actions lamentable.)

The U.S. Constitution also calls on the legislative branch and the judiciary (if matters of illegality are involved) to step up. Congressional Democrats have, but it would be so much more effective if Republican political leaders did, too.

It would be in the Republicans’ partisan interests to do so, by the way. We should not hold Trump to a double standard. I would have been outraged if former President Barack Obama revoked Bolton’s security clearances back in the day for the way Bolton criticized the Iran nuclear deal. One day, Democrats will hold the executive branch again, and I would be outraged if they engaged in political payback against national security professionals who had the temerity to serve in the Trump administration.

Trump and his team would be well advised to think a bit further ahead. How do they want to be treated when they are out of office? That would be a good standard for them to apply to others today.

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy and Bass Fellow at Duke University, and director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies and the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy. He is co-editor of Elephants in the Room.
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