A Very Personal Take on Threats to Strip Security Clearances

| Doug Wise
Doug Wise
Former Deputy Director, Defense Intelligence Agency

I served the United States for 48 years in various national security roles that required me to hold a security clearance.   I saw it as a privilege, granted by our government, and reflecting the nation’s trust and confidence in my loyalty and my professional knowledge and abilities.  It wasn’t, nor should it be, a reflection of my ideological alignment with any administration.

The latest statements from the White House that the President is considering revoking the clearances of former high-ranking intelligence, law enforcement and national security leaders based on the fact that they are exercising their First Amendment rights, seems to politicize a process that should not be politicized.

The clearance process is governed by Executive Order 12968 and 50 US Code 3341.  As clearly settled by the ruling in the case of the “Department of the Navy vs. Egan,” the President does have the authority to revoke a security clearance and he doesn’t need to have a well-justified reason for doing so.  Therefore, it’s not an issue whether the President can, it’s an issue of whether he should.  My hope is that the President chooses wisely and doesn’t introduce politics into the clearance process and make political loyalty a condition for holding or maintaining a security clearance.

The rationale for not granting, limiting, or revoking someone’s clearance is to reduce the counterintelligence risk to the Nation, it is not intended to reduce the risk of criticism by former senior officials.  I would also state that granting or revoking a security clearance cannot be a leadership tool to provide incentives or disincentives for current or former government employees.  Let me give you a personal example.

I was the Deputy Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) during the time when Lieutenant General Michael Flynn was the DIA Director and then later became a notable figure in the Trump campaign and early administration. Subsequent to my retirement, a media outlet asked me how I felt about the allegations that General Flynn had concealed some of his relationships and compensation from foreign sources.  I was specifically asked why I didn’t have Flynn’s security clearance revoked (former Directors continued to hold their clearances even into retirement).  My answer (on the record) in terms of how I felt after learning what he had done was that I was “apoplectic.”  I emphasized, though angry at Flynn, and even more disappointed in his alleged (at the time) behavior, I firmly believed he still deserved due process by investigative and adjudication professionals similar to any other former employee in the same situation.  I told the media outlet ‘You wouldn’t want me, a senior government executive, using any revocation authorities (which I didn’t have, by the way) as a way to express my anger and disappointment, or punish him for how his deceptive behavior reflected poorly on the thousands of current and past DIA employees’.  Regardless of the federal agency involved, the security clearance process is detailed, rigorous, thorough, and fair and there is a reason for that.  The Nation would not be well served if senior government executives were able to reward favored employees with a clearance or revoke or deny one to those whose behavior was annoying or disappointing.

I am sanguine that White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ remarks were political posturing and designed to intimidate current and future critics of the Administration.  However, even if the President doesn’t revoke the clearances of my former senior colleagues, all the narrative surrounding this announcement might create the impression at levels beneath the President, that it is acceptable for government officials to use the granting or revocation of security clearances as a tool of coercive leadership.

I also worried that Administration staffers would be using the number of revocation scalps as a way to demonstrate their own commitment to their President’s agenda.  In a dystopian moment, I envision teams of officials sifting through speeches, articles, and social media utterings looking for politically incriminating content.  And in my worst moments, I also wonder whether hearsay comments by colleagues, friends and even family would be enough to put one into the McCarthy-esque danger zone of losing a security clearance.  I then wonder if clearance revocation doesn’t produce the desired results and if former officials keep criticizing, could the targeted IRS audit not be far behind?  We’ve already seen the results when the past actions of the IRS became politicized and the IRS was accused of intimidating conservative organizations.

I believe it’s not just an issue for former officials.  If I was a Democrat on either the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence or the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, I’d be seriously worried.  As a member of the opposition party, it is expected that I will criticize the administration, its officials and even the President.  If the course of action by the President as described by Sanders on Monday, became de rigueur, as a Committee member, I’d now have to worry about whether my political comments would result in the revocation of my security clearance and whether I’d lose my position on the Committee.

Though it is often criticized, the current security clearance process works.  Why, because it has professionals and standards.  In an environment where current officials could use clearance revocation as way to “de-Bathify” the current ranks or the ranks of former officials, there is no standard and the professionals are no longer involved in the process.  Admittedly, the aforementioned is a worst case scenario, but all Americans need to be concerned over the misuse of the security clearance process as it affects our national security.

I was also sensitive to Sanders’ description that certain formers were ‘monetizing’ their clearances.  In the spirit of full disclosure, I have a security clearance.  It enables me to do some of my retirement work, and I get compensated for that work.  I have a security clearance because the government believes I need to have one for the government to derive the maximum benefit from my knowledge and experience, not for my personal benefit.  And since having a security clearance is a condition of employment for all employees in the Intelligence Community and many in the DoD, they (in effect) are monetizing their clearances.  So Sanders’ rationalization seems vacuous to me.

As a former official, were I to lose my security clearance (because an official reading this takes offense) it would anger but not destroy me as I’m not dependent, in retirement, upon government business.  While I am reluctant to speak on their behalf, I would imagine that the former officials identified by Sanders in her press conference will not be significantly affected nor deterred from taking the public positions they take if they are stripped of their clearances.

I’m hopeful Sanders’ comments were just political rhetoric and intimidation.  If the Administration were to use Presidential authorities to suppress criticism by former senior officials, it would be a significant misuse of those authorities and would undermine the serious intent of the entire security clearance process, which has served this Nation exceptionally well.

 

The Author is Doug Wise

Douglas H. Wise served as Deputy Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency from August 2014 until August 2016. Following 20 years of active duty in the Army where he served as an infantry and special operations officer, he spent the remainder of his career at CIA. He graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point with a Bachelor of Science degree, and also graduated from the U.S. Army's Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Wise earned Master's... Read More

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6 Replies to “A Very Personal Take on Threats to Strip Security Clearances”
  1. I believe Mr Wise is incorrect in his concern for SSCI and HPSCI members (and others in Congress) losing their access to classified information due to possible actions by the Trump administration. It is my understanding that the separation of powers as laid out in the Constitution means that the Executive Branch grants (and revokes) security accesses for individuals working within or through the Executive Branch, while Congress grants (and revokes) security accesses for the Congressional Branch. Am I incorrect?

  2. I completely disagree. When a “former” participates in partisan political activities with the badge of “intelligence officer”, official clearance and actively attacks a President publicly ( including alleging Treason), he or she loses the privilege of access to Classified Information. I would argue that this person becomes a security risk. If it were any other situation, the author would be reporting any other such official or employee to CounterIntel or other reporting offices. Such people are a risk to the intel agency because it is well known that this animus can easily be used by our enemies to turn them. There are countless examples in our history. Many CIA officers who turned on the Agency for political reasons leaked highly classified information to the Press and others illegally. They are now or have been in prison. The fact that this is the era of Trump and the particular officials are former very high ranking political appointees does not make any difference.

  3. The damage has already been done and I don’t anticipate elements of the other branches of government will take corrective actions.

  4. There was a time when the virtues of honor and integrity were requisite to a life of public service, regardless of one’s political affiliation. The security clearance process was an effective means for the government to determine if an individual lived up to these high ideals and could be trusted to protect the secrets of the United States. Those who failed to live up to those high standards were summarily removed from office and, when appropriate, called to face charges in a court of law.

    By politicizing the clearance process and threatening to remove the clearances of former officials who criticize the President, the current administration is undermining core American values. There is nothing so patriotic as legitimate criticism of public policy. The opposition – including former government officials – certainly did it during the Obama administration. Threatening to remove clearances to stifle dissent sets a dangerous precedent of politicizing that which ought not be politicized. Politics has its place in American society, but our system works, because apolitical professionals can act in the best interests of the United States without worrying that they will lose their access as punishment for speaking out.

  5. Setting aside politics, the situation is pretty straight forward. The “need to know” is based upon one’s job within the government. When one no longer has that job, the “need to know” ceases. This is no different than when one leaves the employment of a company. Common sense would dictate that all former officials have their security clearances reviewed/revoked if they are no longer actively involved with the government. This approach removes any political preference allegations and makes it a standard policy of limiting access to those involved with executive branch departments.

  6. Once you leave government service your access to classified information is required to stop. How do these guys still have access to classified information? Who is leaking the information? I agree these individuals have become politically motivated and therefore should have their clearances revoked!!!!