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Analysis

Weaponizing Security Clearances Is Unacceptable, Whether CIA Directors are the Victims or Perpetrators

(Photo: White House / Pete Souza; illustration: CJ Ostrosky / POGO)

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.

This is not to minimize the harmful effect of President Trump’s open retaliation against Brennan, or his even more alarming threats to suspend the clearance of current Justice Department employee Bruce Ohr for cooperating with Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. The President personally taking action against career civil servants because he has concluded without due process—and apparently based on Fox News reports--that they are responsible for “the rigged witch hunt” against him is a great deal worse.

The current clearance adjudication process does not have adequate protections. Approximately four million Americans hold security clearances, and for many of them, losing their clearance would mean losing their jobs. The President’s actions could encourage retaliation by other national security officials who wish to silence whistleblowers and critics, who are in a much more vulnerable position than Brennan. They need enforceable protection against using the security clearance process for retaliation—something that the leaders of U.S. intelligence agencies and their Congressional allies have long opposed.