Another Perspective on the Security Clearance Debate

Cipher Expert Quick Take

The backlash over President Trump’s decision last week to revoke the security clearance of former CIA Director John Brennan has gotten plenty of media attention over the past several days. 

The Cipher Brief spokes with former CIA Chief of Station Dan Hoffman about a perspective not widely discussed.

Hoffman: This may surprise you where I’m going to start with this, but during the Presidential campaign, General Mike Flynn took part in a lot of campaign rallies, where he joined then Candidate Trump supporters in chants of “Lock her up”.  Flynn is a retired Senior Military Intelligence Officer, former Director of DIA, and he was deeply involving himself in politics in what could be considered an unseemly and disrespectful manner.

At the time, I was serving overseas as a Station Chief in South Asia, and my concern was that, aside from our own electorate, foreigners were listening closely to General Flynn.  What if Secretary Clinton had won the election?  Foreign governments, foreign spies who steal secrets on our behalf, might have justifiably assumed that Flynn might have known something by virtue of his deep experience and his security clearance.  So Flynn was risking damage to national security to serve his own political purpose.

I never spoke to John Brennan about Flynn, and I can only imagine how Brennan might have reacted to Flynn’s controversial behavior.  But there are some similarities between their public statements.  Brennan should understand that when he makes what he acknowledged post facto were unsubstantiated public claims on television about Putin being able to blackmail President Trump, or when he called President Trump’s Helsinki Summit performance treasonous, in the those cases, just like in Flynn’s, Brennan was risking damage to our national security.  Because not just our citizens, but foreign governments and foreign spies are listening in, and potentially acting on Brennan’s words.

The Cipher Brief:  How do you explain that so many formers who are speaking out against the President’s decision, are also distancing themselves from Brennan and his comments?

Hoffman: I would question whether those who are exercising their right of free speech to protest, in a signed letter, the President’s decision to revoke Brennan’s security clearance, might have done better not to intertwine their well-argued points with Brennan, who is going to tarnish their argument.  You know, President Trump is not a neophyte, he knows Brennan, by virtue of Brennan’s own mixed record as DCIA, and public statements after leaving office.  The President knew that Brennan was the right person to pick a political fight with.  We’ve already seen Admiral Mullen and Director Clapper, distance themselves from Brennan’s comments.  Clapper, in particular, is trying to make the point that the President shouldn’t be revoking anyone’s security clearance, but he’s also trying to be intellectually honest and note at least that Brennan is not a credible witness.  I don’t know that you can do that, it’s a delicate balancing act.  The President does have the authority to revoke Brennan’s security clearance, but it’s the CIA who holds his clearance, so if the President had followed traditional norms he would have tasked CIA, the Director of Security specifically, to determine whether Brennan had violated the terms of his security clearance.  The President didn’t do that, but again, Brennan is such a controversial figure and has exceeded the norms of what we would expect from a retired intelligence officer.

We’ve talked a lot about the privilege of holding a security clearance, it’s not a right and I think really it’s about responsibility.  There’s a lot of responsibility that comes with a security clearance.  Even for those who once had a clearance and no longer do, there’s no statute of limitations on protecting the secrets you once knew.  So in a sense, once you’ve had a security clearance, you always have a security clearance.  I can tell you that I, and others in the media that I’ve spoken with who once had clearances are extraordinarily careful not to reveal secrets that we know, even though today we no longer have access.

Professional intelligence officers are supposed to deal with facts, and they should know that they speculate at their own peril.  At the end of the day, I think that’s what bothers me about Brennan’s approach.  We’ve talked about this before in The Cipher Brief, where I wrote about it months ago, speculating and making unfounded judgements is risky I think.  But the bottom line of why this matters is this- who benefits most from all the turmoil?  Clearly from my optic as a retired intelligence officer who spent many years tracking Soviet and Russian intelligence, I can only imagine Vladimir Putin passing around the vodka bottles in the Kremlin to celebrate the influence virus he injected into our political system that continues to cause increasingly intense division.

I think Putin is definitely tasking his foreign intelligence officers to track the reaction inside our government and outside, to Brennan’s feud with President Trump.  And as Putin has with other efforts to sew discord in our political landscape, I would not be surprised if we detect those infamous Russian bots seeking to amplify this public feud, with an eye toward further dividing our country and making us less effective as a counter weight to Russia’s own attacks on our homeland and our allies.  We just saw today General Hayden say that we’re potentially at the breaking point between the national security establishment and President Trump.  I’m not quite sure I would go that far, but whether it’s true or not true, Putin loves that.  And so do the rest of our enemies- the Chinese, the North Koreans, the Iranians, the terrorists, everybody does.  This isn’t just a gift to Russia, all of this is a gift that Russia is giving our enemies.  All of them.  And it hurts us, and that’s why Russia is doing it, but the Russians know that North Korea, Iran, China and all the rest of our enemies benefit greatly from this turmoil.  And that’s why I wish everybody would go to their sides, and take a break for a few minutes, and leave this one alone, but I don’t think that’s going to happen.


Cipher Expert Quick Take

2 Responses

  1. Edard W. says:

    Two thoughts come to mind when I think of Mr. Brennan. First, security clearances are only provided to those who have a need to know. Unless Mr. Brennan is doing contract work, for the federal government, why should he hold a clearance? Clearances are routinely pulled when you retire. Why should an SES be allowed to retain his clearance when the employees below do not? Second, everyone holding a clearance routinely signs a “Non-Disclosure Agreement” during their employment or when they retire. These clearance holders are normally out-briefed and verbally told the terms of their “Non-Disclosure Agreement” when they leave their position of employment. In the case of the CIA, former employees have to submit any articles or books they want to publish or public statements they are making, if they relate to their past employment with the CIA, to the CIA’s Publication Review Board. Somehow I doubt Mr. Brennan is doing this. It would be nice if Mr. Brennan were held to the same standards of the employees below him.

  2. Paul Kelly says:

    I concur with Edard W. While I recognize that a retired director may be called in for a chat now and then, there are protocols in place to accommodate such chats — as well as entry into the building — which fall short of maintaining a security clearance where there is no need. If there was a need for Mr. Brennan to hold a clearance at this time, as suggested by Edard, then the nature of that need is not publicly known. Access to classified information without a need to know is simply a liability, retired director or not.

    Mr. Hoffman wrote, “Brennan is such a controversial figure and has exceeded the norms of what we would expect from a retired intelligence officer.” I concur with this statement, as well. As has been the case in the past, retired directors ought to maintain a certain sense of decorum in public. Whatever opinions they have regarding the president should be shared in a small circle of trust if they are shared at all.

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