I was disappointed in Chris Wallace this weekend (on Fox News Sunday) for characterizing the Brennan security clearance flap as a case of Trump punishing a critic, by wielding the power of the security clearance over him. The implication was that this was a petty and personal move by Trump. The further implication was that it would have an intimidating effect on the speech of those whose priority is to keep their clearances.
(On behalf of thousands of mid-level intelligence professionals past and present, I will insert here one brisk “Boo-fricking-hoo.”)
A few pundits have done reasonably well by the topic. But most are missing the mark by focusing on whether it damages Brennan’s marketability on the punditry circuit. Some commentators say, correctly, “Too bad for Brennan.” His right to free political speech is unaffected by whether he has a security clearance or not, after all. And his right to free political speech is what the Constitution protects. There is no constitutional right to hold a security clearance.
But that’s not really what matters here.
Other commentators delve deep into the sense of personal grievance Brennan must have at seeing his access terminated (which technically is what has occurred. It takes more than the stroke of a pen to make him literally ineligible to have access reinstated; i.e., to actually “lose” the basis for his clearance. I haven’t seen evidence that a process for that has been initiated).
Still others have focused on the point that there is monetary value to a departed senior official’s continued access to classified information. This gets at the actual important point, but in most cases falls short of developing it.
So here is the important point. Why in the world should anyone in America retain official access to classified information while being paid to contribute material to a news organization?
What kind of insanity is that? However that practice got started, it should stop immediately. It is ridiculous to suggest that there is anything judicious or sensible about allowing such a situation.
Many departed officials retain their clearances if they are going to move into government consulting jobs, or other jobs with government contractors. That situation may or may not need review, but it’s not the issue here.
The issue is departed officials, whether civil service or military retirees, or appointed officials like Brennan, who retain courtesy clearances because of their seniority, and then hire out to news organizations to be expert commentators.
It takes an idiot to not see that that is blowing the control valve off the pipeline for classified information.
This isn’t about personalities, power moves, or freedom of speech. It’s about a moral hazard the size of this galaxy and the next six all gaggled together, and one to which an end should be put forthwith. There are conditions for keeping cleared access — the clearance holder’s behavior must comport with that of a professional still employed with the U.S. government — and that should explicitly include not being paid to provide or convey information relating to U.S. intelligence or national security to a media outlet.
You want to comment as a paid consultant on intelligence or national security, with CNN, or NBC, or Fox, or the New York Times or Politico or anyone other media outlet, you should do it without being read in for any current classified access. Yes, it should be just that simple. How foolish to even suggest otherwise.
Bonus experience: see former CIA official Phillip Mudd, now a counterterrorism analyst for CNN, melt down in a topical segment with conservative commentator Paris Dennard on CNN last week. PJ Media’s Debra Heine has a good rundown on the event here.