What is a security clearance?
A security clearance allows a person to view classified national security information. It’s used when ex-government officials return to Washington to advise current officials on specific situations of which they have unique knowledge. It’s used when ex-government officials serve on commissions that inform the president or congress. It’s used by ex-presidents when they work on behalf of the U.S. following their departure from office. It’s also used in the private sector, when ex-officials are employed for their expertise.
Employers that hire ex-government officials can ask to have their security clearances transferred to their new job.
The people who hold these clearances are periodically vetted; the frequency depends on the level of clearance.
One more point: having a security clearance doesn’t mean the individual has access to all information classified on that level; in order to access a specific piece of information he or she needs to demonstrate a “need to know.” This is important to understand because, some experts say, a less hostile and public way of “controlling” John Brennan’s information flow would have been to not grant access because he doesn’t have a “need to know.”
The president’s statement revoking Brennan’s clearance accuses Brennan of “erratic conduct and behavior” that “has tested and far exceeded the limits of any professional courtesy that may have been due to him.” It also accuses Brennan of “a history that calls into question his objectivity and credibility.”
The president did not say that Brennan leaked classified secrets, although this has been tossed around as a cause for losing one’s security clearance. Read the president’s full statement here.
So, let’s start there, and try to understand both sides of the question: Should the president have revoked John Brennan’s clearance?
John Brennan should no longer have had security clearance.
This point should be made in support of the president’s position even though it hasn’t been proven: if Brennan used his clearance to leak classified information, this could be reason to stop his access.
So far, there has been no credible evidence of a leak.
John Bolton, National Security Advisor
Bolton suggested that former CIA Director John Brennan might have misused classified information, and that “unprecedented leaks” may result in broader changes in how security clearances are handled.
“My opinion is that he was politicizing intelligence,” Bolton said in an interview.
In response, Bolton was asked: “You’re not sure whether John Brennan used classified information? You have no specific examples.”
Bolton answered: “I think a number of people have commented that [Brennan] couldn’t be in the position he’s in of criticizing President Trump and his so-called collusion with Russia unless he did use classified information. But I don’t know the specifics.”
Without specific examples of security breeches, how does Bolton’s accusation make sense?
Walter Pincus is a columnist and Senior National Security Reporter for the Cipher Brief, a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter from the Washington Post, and a 50-year veteran reporter on intelligence, national security and federal law enforcement.
Pincus writes, “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.”
the security clearance is profitable
The White House says the president revoked clearances of people who used sensitive information for personal gain. Again, this was not in the president’s statement.
But, it is not uncommon for people who have left government to pursue work at think-tanks or consulting firms, with news agencies or other employers that would value the expertise and possibly the access to top-level information. Does the security clearance make them MORE of an expert than their job experience? Probably, but not sure how to quantify that.
I can’t decide how it’s different than former presidents that go on profit-making speaking tours after leaving office. What do you think?
Security clearance is meant to be a tool to make government service effective and their secrets safe. After an employee with clearance leaves, it becomes an extension of that: it’s a tool to help the newcomers learn from past expertise. It’s not meant to be a long-term benefit, and may contribute to a system in which a small group have ongoing, long-term access to information that the rest of us don’t. Does this process lead to abuse? Should it be abolished altogether? What would be the fallout?
The president has an enemy list, John Brennan tops it, and that’s not a reason to revoke a security clearance.
A bipartisan group of more than a dozen former intelligence directors, plus retired Adm. William H. McRaven, spoke out against the president’s move. On Aug. 17, they were joined by another 60 officials, and over 170 added their names on Aug. 20.
“All of us believe it is critical to protect classified information from unauthorized disclosure. But we believe equally strongly that former government officials have the right to express their unclassified views on what they see as critical national security issues without fear of being punished for doing so,” the letter states.
In totalitarian regimes, dissent is not permitted; in a Democracy, dissent is not silenced. Specifically in intelligence, where Brennan served, dissenting voices can keep presidents from enacting or continuing devastating policies.
Additionally, if dissent is threatened with the revocation of clearances, will that change the way officials react to issues because they could potentially have their future impacted by speaking out?
value of security clearances to our country
Security clearances are preserved for former officials in order for people who have unique knowledge that is valuable to our government to be able to help to bring insight and clarity to issues. They are also useful when ex-officials serve on commissions that serve the government. These jobs are not monetarily compensated.
So, we are weighing the value of clearances to provide insight and information to the government with the possibility of a former official using the clearance to support a position in the private sector that may result in compensation.
freedom of speech
It’s been tossed around that Brennan’s right to free speech has been violated. Since he’s still able to talk (and dissent), I’m not sure how this would hold up. Here’s an example of a message he sent:
He doesn’t beat around the bush. And, since his clearance was revoked, he hasn’t exactly changed his tune.
Mark Zaid, national security attorney, talked to Vox news re: security clearances and the president’s right to revoke them
“One thing to understand — because I’m sure people are already saying, “This is a violation of their First Amendment rights and they’ll sue” — they can’t sue. I mean, anybody can sue, you can sue for anything, but they have no basis. There’s a Supreme Court precedence from 30 years ago that restricts federal judges from handling security clearance appeals. This really is the power of the executive branch. And it’s an unchecked power at this stage.”
They rule that a president has absolute power to grant, deny or revoke access to classified information. This authority is inherent in his role as commander in chief.