As Howard Portnoy noted earlier today, President Trump has terminated former CIA Director John Brennan’s courtesy security clearance, a perk of departed senior political officials.
Brennan complained that this move was a threat to freedom of speech and a way to “punish critics.” Howard observed, quite correctly, that termination of a security clearance has zero impact on Brennan’s freedom of speech.
I would add that termination of a security clearance is also no form of punishment, for those who no longer need a clearance to do their jobs. Brennan doesn’t need a clearance. He holds no job for which a clearance is required.
In fact, he has been in the position for the last 18 months of doing something I could never do, or anyone else who wasn’t granted special favors as a senior political appointee. He has held a clearance while at the same time being able to run around talking about national security and intelligence issues to the mainstream media without government supervision. Since February 2018, he’s been able to do it for money.
Great work if you can get it. The hazards of “leakage” should be obvious, but I’ll mention them anyway. As Politico pointed out, James Clapper (former DNI) and Michael Haydn (like Brennan, former DCI) are similarly employed. And unlike the others in the Politico list of spooks-turned-talking-heads, Clapper and Haydn also presumably have retained their clearances.
It’s nice to think these top officials would never dream of misusing their cleared access to national secrets. But it’s still not super-smart to blithely create moral hazards. We should at least have conditions for retaining those courtesy clearances for departed officials.
John Brennan didn’t even go 24 hours without demonstrating why. In an opinion piece at the New York Times on Thursday, Brennan did exactly what someone in his position should not do. He used the imputed intelligence authority of his former office to lend gravity to a biased assessment of thinly-sourced innuendo from the media, and made a sweeping pronouncement about Donald Trump’s culpability in “collusion” with the Russians.
Trump’s claim of no collusion, said Brennan, is “hogwash.”
The op-ed builds its case through a series of implications, and you must read it yourself to get the full effect of that. The only thing Brennan asserts categorically is that the Russians interfere in Western politics, and he was certain that they tried to do so in the U.S. election. That, he notes, was the burden of the intelligence community assessment done on Russia and the 2016 election.
Everything else is an elliptical conclusion we are invited to draw from a string of allusions, none of which is to an established fact about even the vague term “collusion,” much less the statutory term “conspiracy.” American citizens in politics make easy dupes for the Russians, Brennan says. He and James Comey agreed on that. He and other intelligence officials agreed to be vigilant and share information that might relate to such interference.
When Trump made a joking reference to the Russians finding Hillary’s missing emails for us during the campaign, according to Brennan, that made his already challenging work even harder. (This is actually a silly thing to say, since looking for a Russian reaction to the Trump joke would be easier, in fact, than merely watching for who knows what to cue us to Russian activity.)
None of Brennan’s case at this point requires any sort of clearance or intelligence background to make. But his implication is clearly that we ought to take his word for it because he was the Director of Central Intelligence.
Now comes the money passage:
Such a public clarion call certainly makes one wonder what Mr. Trump privately encouraged his advisers to do — and what they actually did — to win the election. While I had deep insight into Russian activities during the 2016 election, I now am aware — thanks to the reporting of an open and free press — of many more of the highly suspicious dalliances of some American citizens with people affiliated with the Russian intelligence services.
Mr. Trump’s claims of no collusion are, in a word, hogwash.
The only questions that remain are whether the collusion that took place constituted criminally liable conspiracy, whether obstruction of justice occurred to cover up any collusion or conspiracy, and how many members of “Trump Incorporated” attempted to defraud the government by laundering and concealing the movement of money into their pockets.
Not one single word of that is based on evidence, intelligence knowledge, or expertise. And it is highly irresponsible in its sweeping misrepresentation of conjecture as expert judgment.
Many have been quick to point out that this sudden opinion burst from Brennan seems to contradict his previous acknowledgments under questioning in Congress; i.e., that he didn’t have specific evidence of collusion by Trump.
But it’s more on point to observe that Brennan’s latest op-ed conforms with what he said at the time; quote:
I don’t do evidence.
No kidding. Apparently not.
Which is why it was a good call to terminate his clearance. Frankly, Trump might well have done it after Brennan literally accused him of treason — a constitutional offense for which the death penalty is the maximum punishment — after Trump’s press conference with Vladimir Putin in July.
Donald Trump’s press conference performance in Helsinki rises to & exceeds the threshold of “high crimes & misdemeanors.” It was nothing short of treasonous. Not only were Trump’s comments imbecilic, he is wholly in the pocket of Putin. Republican Patriots: Where are you???
— John O. Brennan (@JohnBrennan) July 16, 2018
Brennan had no objective justification for making this claim or accusing Trump of “high crimes and misdemeanors.” He didn’t have the knowledge to base such claims on. Yet he did it anyway.
Here’s the important point. No one else would get away with making such intemperate, inflammatory claims to the public while retaining a security clearance. John Brennan can say what he likes, but he should be subject to the same rules of responsible, appropriate conduct and self-discipline as anyone else, when it comes to holding a security clearance.