Taking the Chill out of the Security Clearance Issue

| Walter Pincus
Walter Pincus
Columnist, The Cipher Brief

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?

The Author is Walter Pincus

Walter Pincus is a Columnist and the Senior National Security Reporter at The Cipher Brief. He spent forty years at The Washington Post, writing on topics from nuclear weapons to politics.  In 2002, he and a team of Post reporters won the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting. He also won an Emmy in 1981 and the 2010 Arthur Ross Award from the American Academy for Diplomacy.  He can be reached at wpincus@thecipherbrief.com.

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One Reply to “Taking the Chill out of the Security Clearance Issue”
  1. John Brennan came in to CIA as director in 2013 after it was disclosed by the NY Times that a dozen Chinese agents had been exposed and murdered.

    I never believed the dozen figure and still don’t. It is quite clear the CIA computer system had to have been compromised for several years, my guess is within a year of Obama becoming President. I also believe they had to have shared the names of agents working in Russia as well. This would explain Sergei Magnitsky being beaten to death in a Russian prison. If his name was on the CIA list as an informer…..

    I believe the Chinese dissidents who say China killed 50 agents. But lets say 30 to 50. So what was Obama’s response?

    He goes to China and signs a climate change accord. It is style over substance, as our end of it is brutal to American business and meant to emasculate it abroad. However, after murdering our sources, what was China’s end of the deal?

    China does not do anything and keeps going exactly as is until 2030! How on earth does that help the environment? How does that punish China- restricting our businesses while allowing China to continue growing until 2030?

    Are you going to tell me John Brennan didn’t know anything about the accord?

    I suspect there is more to Mr. Brennan than meets the eye. If I were Director of CIA I would be calling for blood and sanctions for breaking into our computers to kill people. My response wouldn’t be, Mr. President, let’s allow China to grow without any restrictions until 2030, and then if they don’t follow through let’s not have any punishment for them not living up to the deal.

    Yes after studying Intel history it could just be blind stupidity. Or it could be something far darker…… then there is the question of Russian interference in the last election. We now know that Obama knew, so our Intel knew, before the election. Yet we did next to nothing to protect the election. We also now know the Russians sent out more pro- Hillary than Trump posts. (Though Trump supporters reposted those far more than Hillary supporters did, but Russia sent out more in favor of Hillary). Was everyone near silent because they thought Russia was helping Hillary? Then the 800 pound unanswered question in the room.
    Hillary was the first to use bots before Russia in her campaign against Obama when she spread the birther story. Why didn’t Brennan move to stop such activity, or CIA in general, when it was done before Russia even thought of it?

    Be seeing you.