'Unprecedented:' Why John Brennan's Extraordinary Partisanship Justifies Revoking His Security Clearance

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Posted: Aug 16, 2018 2:01 PM
'Unprecedented:' Why John Brennan's Extraordinary Partisanship Justifies Revoking His Security Clearance

President Trump's decision to strip former CIA Director John Brennan of his security clearance, announced yesterday, clearly lies within the president's authority.  But was it the right thing to do?  Officially, the White House says the move comes as a result of Brennan's 'erratic' behavior and history of dishonesty.  Here's a portion of President Trump's statement on the matter -- which was originally dated late July, stirring speculation that the administration tactically released it yesterday to deflect from other news cycle items:

Historically, former heads of intelligence and law enforcement agencies have been allowed to retain access to classified information after their Government service so that they can consult with their successors regarding matters about which they may have special insights and as a professional courtesy. Neither of these justifications supports Mr. Brennan’s continued access to classified information.  First, at this point in my Administration, any benefits that senior officials might glean from consultations with Mr. Brennan are now outweighed by the risks posed by his erratic conduct and behavior.  Second, that conduct and behavior has tested and far exceeded the limits of any professional courtesy that may have been due to him. Mr. Brennan has a history that calls into question his objectivity and credibility.

More than a few people snarked that it's quite rich to see Donald Trump, of all people, warning that someone exhibiting "erratic conduct and behavior" shouldn't have access to classified materials.  But Trump is the legitimately-elected President of the United States, accountable to the people.  Figures like Brennan are accountable to elected civilian leadership.  As for the alleged "history that calls into question [Brennan's] objectivity and credibility," Trump has a point.  Several, actually.  A few months back, Victor Davis Hanson ran through a number of Brennan's most serious credibility-destroying misadventures:

{1) In 2011, Brennan, then the country’s chief counterterrorism adviser, had sworn to Congress that scores of drones strikes abroad had not killed a single noncombatant — at a time when both the president and the CIA were both receiving numerous reports of civilian collateral deaths.

(2) In 2014, John Brennan, now as CIA director, lied emphatically that the CIA had not illegally accessed the computers of U.S. Senate staffers who were then exploring a CIA role in torturing detainees...Brennan’s chronic deceptions drew the ire of a number of liberal senators, some of whom echoed the Washington Post’s call for his immediate resignation. After months of prevarications, but only upon release of the CIA inspector general’s report, Brennan apologized to the senators he had deceived.

(3) Brennan, in May 2017, as an ex-CIA director, again almost certainly did not tell the truth to Congress when he testified in answer to Representative Trey Gowdy’s questions that he neither knew who had commissioned the Steele dossier nor had the CIA relied on its contents for any action. Yet both the retired National Security Agency director, Michael Rogers, and the former director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, have conceded that the Steele dossier — along with the knowledge that it was a Clinton-campaign-funded product — most certainly did help shape the Obama’s intelligence communality interagency assessments and actions, often under the urging of Brennan himself. 

There are also numerous reports that, despite his denials about knowledge of the dossier, Brennan served as a stealthy conduit to ensure that it was disseminated widely, at least in the sense of meeting in August 2016 with Senator Harry Reid to brief the senator about its unverified contents in hopes that he would pressure the FBI to further its investigations, which Reid did in a call two days later to James Comey.

In addition to these examples of documented dishonesty, it's important to consider Brennan's astonishing hyper-partisanship and "resistance"-style histrionics, both in televised commentaries and on social media. Two representative examples, starting with a blistering tweet sent in response to the firing of ex-FBI official Andrew McCabe (who, I'll remind you, repeatedly lied to federal investigators, prompting the Inspector General to recommend criminal charges): 


And then there's this breathless, hyperbolic use of the T-word, employed after the president's strikingly weak performance at a press conference alongside Vladimir Putin in Finland: 


Brennan and other former national security officials -- including figures with their own serious credibility problems -- are absolutely free to engage in any sort of political speech they see fit.  But considering the unprecedented, explicitly partisan vitriol they're resorting to (I've written previously that this type of rhetoric does damage to the institutions they claim to care about so profoundly), it's not unreasonable to expect the Trump administration to respond with a commensurate breach of precedent.  Former Deputy National Security Adviser to President George W. Bush, Elliott Abrams, persuasively advances this point in a Politico column:

I cannot recall previous high intelligence officials acting the way Brennan and Clapper have in vocally assaulting the succeeding administration in a highly partisan manner...what’s happening now is unprecedented. Brennan and Clapper may well believe that Trump is a threat to the country and as such, merits a break from the norms. They are entitled to their beliefs and can go on attacking—but they shouldn’t have access to classified information. One has to assume that the partisan views Brennan and Clapper now express were the same views they held when in office, and it is impossible to believe such views did not affect their conduct of their offices. They have done real damage to the belief and expectation that partisan politics will not affect the way our intelligence agencies operate, or the advice they give. They have also led to a reasonable suspicion they might deliberately leak something that could in their view damage the administration or contradict its assertions.

Of course, former officials—including presidents—do not take a vow of silence upon leaving office. But former presidents have usually been circumspect in attacking their successors (Jimmy Carter is an exception), and former intelligence chiefs have generally avoided partisan attacks as well. In behaving this way, they are changing the rules, and Trump is justified in changing the rules to reflect their conduct.  Needless to say, lines have to be drawn. Security clearances should not depend on party loyalty and should not be routinely and immediately revoked when a word (or many words) of criticism are spoken. But it is reasonable to ask our highest former national security officials to consider the integrity of their former offices and agencies and ask that they decide carefully before entering the political and media fray. They are free to choose that path, but if they do, they relinquish the perquisites that have traditionally gone with their long careers—like a security clearance.

Brennan has chosen to become an unrestrained, untethered partisan combatant. It's therefore hardly out of bounds to cease affording him certain traditional courtesies in response -- especially if there's any reasonable suspicion that he'd be willing to weaponize intelligence in furtherance of his undisguised political agenda (see bullet point three from VDH's piece above).  That said, it's worth pointing out that maintaining former officials' clearances doesn't grant access to new intelligence, and typically is used to tap into an official's specialized knowledge from previous operations without violating the law.  In other words, stripping Brennan's clearance is mostly symbolic and could potentially hamper future intelligence efforts.  The White House acknowledged this trade-off in Trump's statement, concluding that the upsides of taking this step based on Brennan's conduct 'outweigh' possible drawbacks.  

I'm inclined to defend this move for the reasons cited above, but if you tend to view all of this through the prism of a vindictive president seeking to punish his critics or retaliate against people he blames for the "witch hunt" against him, Trump seems determined to vindicate your suspicions:

In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Trump made a more direct connection between his action against Brennan and the investigation than he had in a statement released Wednesday. He told the newspaper he believes Brennan is one of the people responsible for special counsel Robert Mueller's probe. "I think that whole – I call it the rigged witch hunt – is a sham," Trump told the Journal on Wednesday. "And these people led it!" "So I think it's something that had to be done," he added, referring to his revocation of Brennan's clearance.

Even when he has a chance to be correct on the merits, he can't help himself.  As for Brennan, he's indignantly vowing to never stop speaking out.  Now that's a Brennan claim I most certainly believe.