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.