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Why Stripping John Brennan’s Security Clearance Sets A Good Precedent


A recent CNN article questioned the precedent President Trump set by stripping former Central Intelligence Agency director John Brennan’s security clearance. In the article, Chris Cillizza expressed concern that “the criteria for stripping a former senior intelligence official of his security credentials is solely how nice and supportive he is to the current administration?”

He based this conclusion on statements from Sen. Orrin Hatch and Trump White House senior counselor Kellyanne Conway that mentioned Brennan’s lack of friendship and support towards the current administration. Cillizza is correct that Trump’s decision to strip Brennan’s security clearance sets a precedent. But his conclusion that it’s a dangerous precedent is oversimplified and erroneous for several reasons.

In his article, Cillizaa references 13 guidelines by which national security clearances are typically evaluated and revoked and correctly points out that “not being a friend to an administration” is not on the list. Had he stopped there, his argument might have been somewhat sensical, although weak in substance.

But he also quoted the “official” reasons the White House provided for stripping Brennan’s security clearance, which included allegations that Brennan lied, engaged in frenzied commentary, and used his position as a former high-ranking official to make unfounded and outrageous allegations about the administration.

Here Cillizaa provided ample and concrete evidence supporting Trump’s decision and invalidated his argument that the decision was based on a lack of closeness or friendship with the administration. Cillizaa in fact admitted that although the White House’s listed reasons didn’t cite any specific criteria for the revocation, “the reference to ‘recent conduct characterized by increasingly frenzied commentary’ would seem to hint at either ‘personal conduct’ or ‘psychological conditions.’”

Brennan Met the Conditions for Being Denied Clearance

Appendix A of the National Security Adjudicative Guidelines provides that a person’s personal conduct (Guideline E) and/or psychological conditions (Guideline I) are two of many factors that may be considered when deciding whether to grant or to continue someone’s national security eligibility.

Additional factors relating to specific conduct include the nature, extent, and seriousness of the conduct, the circumstances surrounding the conduct, whether the participation was voluntary, the motivation for the conduct, the potential for coercion or exploitation, and the likelihood of continuation or recurrence. Finally, “Any doubt concerning personnel being considered for national security eligibility will be resolved in favor of the national security.”

With these factors in mind, and after reviewing some of Brennan’s prior statements and conduct, there is no question that revocation was justified. Specifically on March 17, 2018, Brennan tweeted about Trump: “When the full extent of your venality, moral turpitude, and political corruption becomes known, you will take your rightful place as a disgraced demagogue in the dustbin of history. You may scapegoat Andy McCabe, but you will not destroy America…America will triumph over you.”

On another occasion, Brennan allegedly “made an unfounded claim on television that President Trump is being blackmailed by Russian President Vladimir Putin, saying the Russians ‘may have something’ on President Trump.”

On yet another occasion, Sen. Rand Paul questioned whether Brennan was monetizing his security clearance, asking, “Is John Brennan making millions of dollars divulging secrets to the mainstream media with his attacks on @realDonaldTrump?” Paul also filibustered Brennan’s nomination to head the CIA in 2013 due to his concerns about Brennan’s “history of unethical actions around classified information.”

Using National Security Info for Personal or Political Gain

The main purpose of giving former officials continued security clearance is so they can help the government when necessary, such as providing classified information about a foreign government or past events to a new administration. It’s not so they can help themselves.

If Brennan used intelligence and information at the highest level of government and leaked it to the press or other third parties (i.e., for money), he should not have security clearance. If he used information for the sole purpose of bringing down a sitting U.S. president, he should not have security clearance. If his deep-rooted bias and hatred of the president dictated the way he conducted himself, he should not have unfettered access to such sensitive and classified information.

In questioning the precedent Trump’s revocation may set, Cillizaa also questioned whether Republicans would approve if a Democratic president revoked the security clearance of the current CIA director if she was critical or unfriendly to the next administration. This is a legitimate inquiry.

This question’s premise is false, however, in that it assumes Brennan’s security clearance was revoked because he was critical of the president or unfriendly with the administration. Trump did not strip Brennan’s security clearance for this reason. He did so because Brennan did not deserve to have such clearance any longer based on his own conduct.

Trump’s decision to strip Brennan’s security clearance does not set a dangerous precedent. To the contrary, it sets a strong message and precedent that a person (Republican or Democrat) who allegedly uses his security clearance for an improper or illegal purpose will have his clearance revoked.

Trump showed strength, leadership, and a desire to protect the country’s most classified information against misuse and abuse. Cillizaa admitted that Trump “was within his rights to revoke any security clearance he wants.” When the facts warrant, he should do so no matter what side of the political aisle the person sits on.