Security clearances as bureaucratic weapons

  • 21 August 2018
  • NormanL

The president's decision to rescind former CIA director John Brennan's security clearance has caused a great row over executive power. But behind all the huffing and puffing are some fundamental issues abut the nation's security procedures -- and abuses -- that haven't received nearly the attention they deserve:

A group of former CIA directors and deputy directors has denounced President Trump’s revocation of former CIA Director John Brennan’s security clearance in retaliation for Brennan’s criticisms of him as “an attempt to stifle free speech.” They are correct about the dangers of the President‘s actions—but wrong to claim that the abuse of executive authority over clearances and classified information is “unprecedented.” Adverse action against a whistleblower’s security clearance is a common form of retaliation, and the legal protections against such reprisals are weak and poorly enforced.

Executive agencies regularly use their classification powers to avoid oversight or accountability for embarrassing or unlawful conduct. POGO called for Brennan’s resignation in 2014 over the agency’s retaliatory search of the computer files and baseless criminal referral of the Senate staffer who led the intelligence committee’s investigation into CIA torture. The current CIA Director, Gina Haspel, used her classification authority to prevent any substantive disclosure of her central role in the torture program during her Senate confirmation process.

There's an honest and necessary debate to be had over who gets a security clearance and for how long. There is an even greater debate needed over how agencies have manipulated security clearances to punish those who expose waste, abuse, and outright criminality inside an agency.

John Brennan is no saint, and there were plenty of very good reasons to remove his clearance. There are likely excellent reasons to review the other 4 million people who have security clearances to ensure their continued access to secret material is warranted.

The larger point though -- that a clearance is used to cover-up wrongdoing, or silence internal agency critics -- should be the real focus of the current debate, and not the bruised egos of cashiered bureaucrats.