OPINION — Don’t believe that President Trump’s retaliatory act of revoking former-CIA Director John Brennan’s security clearance “will have a potentially chilling effect on the United States’ law enforcement and intelligence officers,” as the New York Times wrote in its Friday front page story.
In my view, it will have just the opposite effect on seriously concerned, but normally reticent, government employees. I base that on my experience reporting on intelligence, national security and federal law enforcement for the past 50 years.
I found active and retired officials were more open discussing what was actually going on when superiors or Members of Congress were publicly distorting classified information, inaccurately describing events that took place in private, or misusing their authority.
That was the case when I covered Watergate during the Nixon administration, Iran-contra under Reagan and George W. Bush’s Iraq invasion. Another stimulant for leaks was when, for example, CIA personnel were unhappy with internal policy and personnel changes undertaken by Directors such as Stansfield Turner, Porter Goss and John Deutch.
Journalists should stop repeatedly writing about the “chilling effect” on their sources in these situations, when the government or some official appears to be cracking down on leaks, whistleblowing, or in this case just misusing personal power.
History shows that most often just the reverse happens. It was in the midst of the so-called Obama crackdown on press leaks that Edward Snowden passed tens of thousands of highly classified documents to the media.
What Trump has been doing, however, is far, far different, and poses a much more serious problem, not just to specific agencies, but to our democratic government overall.
John Brennan did not release or leak classified information. He was speaking out, giving his critical opinion of Trump and his administration, but using public information to do it. It was Brennan’s authoritative voice that Trump was trying to damage, and eventually stifle (though Trump has denied trying to silence Brennan).
But Trump used a presidential power irrelevant to Brennan’s actions, in what is widely seen as an attempt to diminish his voice. Given that much of what Trump does is for public consumption and debate, revoking Brennan’s security clearance was also useful last week as an effort to divert public attention from the more juicy, anti-Trump drama generated by fired White House employee Amarosa Manigault Newman.
Like his earlier splurge in handing out pardons, Trump has found in revoking clearances, another useful presidential tool if he needs to refocus public attention. But playing with who get access to classified information strikes serious concerns.
That concern was illustrated by last week’s unusual open letter signed by a bipartisan list of former top intelligence officials. Within that group are George Tenet, Bob Gates, and David Petraeus, who normally hold their personal views of national leaders to themselves.
The line in their letter that deserves attention is the claim, “We have never before seen the approval or removal of security clearances used as a political tool.”
Presidential mixing of politics and secret information creates a brew dangerous to democracy.
Meanwhile, if this Trump action does not work to quiet Brennan, and I doubt it will, what will Trump use next, and who else might he target?
We are still hearing Trump’s rally crowds shouting, “Lock her up,” often after the President, himself, eggs them on by talking about the continuing need to investigate Hillary Clinton. Will we soon hear a “Lock them up” chant when Trump, at a future rally, harangues Brennan, former-FBI Director James Comey, former-Director of National Intelligence James Clapper or former-CIA Director Michael Hayden?