Senator Rand Paul started a firestorm in Washington, D.C. Monday morning. As the professional political class was drinking their coffee or making their daily commute, the Kentucky Republican tweeted a provocative question: “Is John Brennan [the former CIA Director] monetizing his security clearance? Is John Brennan making millions of dollars divulging secrets to the mainstream media with his attacks on @realDonaldTrump?”
He followed with the announcement that he would be meeting President Donald Trump later in the day to ask him to revoke Brennan’s clearance. And just like that, much of the conversation was diverted from the president’s tweet warning Iran’s Hassan Rouhani against threatening the U.S.
Rouhani’s use of the historically charged phrase “mother of all wars” likely prompted Trump’s response, but that’s a subject for another day. Because by the afternoon, Trump announced that he was indeed considering revoking Brennan’s access to classified information. And much of the establishment began to have a fit.
Richard Haass, president of the Council of Foreign Relations, sounded the alarm. “To strip individuals of security clearances absent specific evidence of improper or illegal use of classified information is seriously wrong,” he said. “It represents a degree of politicization and a misuse of power that we associate with Erdogan’s Turkey, not with the United States.” I might be killing any chance of joining the CFR here, but Haass is wrong on this one. We treat former policy-making officials differently from the average security clearance holder, and it’s time we ended that practice.
Special waiver for past political appointees
Regular readers of Daily Intel, drawn from the ranks of cleared professionals, know this already, but to rehash for everyone, access to classified information has two requirements: a favorable determination of an individual’s suitability to be entrusted with such information, and a bona fide need to know. But under the terms of Section 4.4 of Executive Order 13526, former presidents and vice presidents, historical researchers, and those who “previously have occupied senior policy-making positions to which they were appointed or designated by the President or the Vice President” are eligible for waivers of the need-to-know requirement.
While in the case of former appointees this access is supposed be limited to “items that the person originated, reviewed, signed, or received,” it would seem it doesn’t work that way. Mary Beth Long, who served as President George W. Bush’s assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs after a career as an operations officer in the CIA, shed some additional light on the situation.
“[I]t’s more than that.,” she wrote to Paul. “As a former Director, Brennan has daily access to finished intelligence, a courtesy offered to all previous [Directors of National Intelligence] & Directors [of the CIA]. As paid media pundits, both he and Clapper should forfeit that access immediately.” As one who walks this line every day, I have to agree with Ms. Long.
Not using official position for personal gain
I write this column at night, after spending my working day like most of my readers: as a defense contractor with a security clearance. Since returning to the contracting world after Thanksgiving last year, I have spent every day ensuring that none of the information I have access to makes its way into this space. Because doing so would constitute a serious breach of trust.
While I’m cleared as a requirement of my job, I don’t have regular access to classified information. But I hear and discuss unclassified but sensitive information every day that would make great fodder for my writing. I hear, and sometimes contribute to, high-level information regarding initiatives that affect the Army writ-large, which are not classified, but which no one is talking about publicly. What I just said is the closest I’ll come to discussing those issues, too. Because doing otherwise would just be wrong.
That’s why Rand Paul has a good point in all this. Brennan, and former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, have lucrative second careers in professional punditry. They appear on cable news daily, offering their analysis of current events, usually concluding that the president is wrong at every turn. And they do so after having received mountains of classified information.
This practice must end.
But her emails…
The primary objection that I (and many of those like me) had over the entire Hillary Clinton email scandal was that anyone who wasn’t a cabinet-level appointee and who might have allowed classified information to leak onto an unclassified system would face career-ending charges. The double-standard is striking.
“Spillage” as it’s called, is a serious offense. At the very least, an unclassified computer that is the victim of spillage is wiped clean. Often, entire computers that computer communicated with are wiped as well. The person responsible for the spillage is, as we say, in a world of hurt. Had I done it, regardless of whether I was simply “extremely careless” as then-FBI Director James Comey said of Clinton, or “grossly negligent,” the legal threshold for prosecution, I’d have been pilloried. And rightfully so.
But there seems to be a different set of rules for the “big-wigs.” In the case of access to classified information by former big-wigs, that exception is actually in writing.
Were I to leave my job tomorrow, I would have absolutely no right to access any classified information, whether I worked on it or not. But former presidential appointees routinely get that access. And in Brennan’s case, there’s a good chance that he’s abusing the privilege.
It’s not that he’s revealing classified information on the news. It’s that he is gaining an upper hand by using that classified information to inform his “analysis”—which is, naturally, uniformly opposed to whatever the president has proposed that day. Without regular access to daily intelligence briefings, Brennan and Clapper’s stock would not be so high.
There are many things on which I disagree with Sen. Paul. On this issue, however, he’s hit a bullseye.