Today news broke that Pres. Trump is considering revoking the security clearances of several former government officials. At least partly at the behest of Sen. Rand Paul, former CIA Director John Brennan’s clearance is at the top of that list. Brennan no longer works for the federal government, but is now a contributor to MSNBC – and a vocal critic of the president.
In an interview with Tucker Carlson several days ago, Sen. Paul expressed serious concern that Brennan was using classified information for personal gain and to leak to the press. The pair also questioned the clearance status of other officials, like former FBI Director James Comey and FBI Deputy Director Andy McCabe – all outspoken Trump critics. For Carlson, Paul (and many other Americans) Brennan retaining his clearance seems like the work of a shadow “deep state” government that has ready access to all our personal information.
However, some of these fears are the result of confusion about how security clearances work. Even if all of these private citizens do still hold clearances, they should not have access to the same level of information they did as government employees. Nor are they free to leak classified information to the press with impunity. Let’s break down some of Carlson and Sen. Paul’s comments:
“John Brennan is an irresponsible, partisan combatant who works for a cable news channel and has threatened the president on Twitter. Why in the world would he have a Top Secret federal security clearance?” – Tucker Carlson
If Brennan does indeed still hold his clearance, he was not a partisan combatant or cable news commentator when he was granted it; he was a CIA employee. No one can be granted a security clearance without an extensive background investigation and the sponsorship of their employer (a government agency or contractor). Like any cleared employee, Brennan’s clearance granted him access only to the information his agency deemed necessary to do his job. Clearly, as a former director of the CIA he holds the ‘crown jewels.’ A decision to revoke his eligibility could be made, but his role as a cable news pundit really has nothing to do with it.
“If John Brennan still has clearance, can he research Donald Trump? Can he research his family? Can he type my name into computer search engines? Can he look at all my information? It’s alarming.” – Sen. Paul
No, he cannot. There is no centralized database of all the nation’s classified or personal information that Brennan could simply log in to. Access to government databases should terminate when his service did.
If Brennan were to be investigated and found to be accessing classified information for personal gain, or still in possession of government laptops or equipment, that could open him up to potential criminal prosecution. While precedence exists for former White House and government officials to maintain eligibility to access classified information, there is also a history and precedence for taking it away. When John Deutch, a former CIA director, was found to have mislabeled classified information in his possession, he faced criminal prosecution and the revocation of his clearance. Even the highest position in intelligence can’t prevent you from prosecution if the government deems you have abused a privilege or unrightfully maintained access.
“You hate to think that the Deep State is real, that there’s a permanent government that operates independently of voters – and of democracy itself. But as long as guys like this have security clearances, honestly, you’ve gotta wonder.” – Tucker Carlson
In this case, the “deep state” is really just the inner-workings of government bureaucracy. Unless someone is terminated from a position for security reasons, generally all cleared employees retain their clearance until it is reinvestigated or it expires. This allows employers to more easily hire cleared personnel. With a massive security clearance backlog, the federal government is already struggling to hire all the people it needs to keep America safe. Unless there is reason to believe that someone has become a security risk, revoking an employee’s clearance after the end of every job would needlessly cost time and taxpayer money.
If that doesn’t sound convincing, consider this: many active duty military jobs require a security clearance. Someone could leave the Marine Corps and become a carpenter or high school P.E. teacher. That person will technically hold clearance eligibility until it expires or is used in another cleared position. The eligibility to access classified information is not the issue here – it’s how that information is being used or abused, and whether former government officials are truly using classified information for personal gain.
“What would prevent him from speaking to current employees of the CIA or other intelligence agencies and getting information – deep, secretive information from them that could be leaked to the press or used against his political opponents?” – Tucker Carlson
Brennan could speak with CIA officials, but because he no longer holds a government post, he should no longer be privy to new information. Precedence exists for former senior intelligence officials to operate outside of the traditional bounds of ‘need to know,’ but there is still a policy requirement that access should be limited to information the individual originated or managed in their former official capacity. Former White House officials shouldn’t be reaching out to current Intelligence Community employees to seek insider information – nor should those employees be providing it unless there is a national security motivation. Having a Top Secret clearance at CIA does not generate automatic access to classified documents at NASA or the FBI.
Brennan Doesn’t Need to Wonder Why He’s Under scrutiny
Just last week, Brennan referred to the president’s comments about Russian meddling in the 2016 election as “nothing short of treasonous.” In a follow up interview on MSNBC, he clarified, “…it is betrayal of the nation. He’s giving aid and comfort to the enemy. It needs to stop. And Mr. Trump needs to understand there will be consequences for him too.”
Brennan is now a private citizen, but he – like James Comey and others – are still public figures and former government servants. As such, they do have a responsibility for how they express their opinions. Even if they aren’t leaking classified information, their comments can still hurt the country. So does accusing the president of treason or threatening him on Twitter help or hurt the republic? You can decide. And it will be up to the White House and current directors of the CIA and FBI to decide what, if any, actions will be taken against former government officials.