Acting on Trump's threat to revoke security clearances of former intelligence officials who criticise him could backfire in a national crisis

  • President Donald Trump’s threat to revoke the security clearances of former US intelligence officials who have criticised him prompted swift reaction on Monday.
  • Intelligence officials who no longer work for the government generally maintain a security clearance so the latest administration can consult them on matters pertinent to national security.

The White House on Monday suggested President Donald Trump wanted to punish a handful of former top US intelligence officials who have criticised him by revoking their security clearance.

That proposal received swift reactions from the intelligence community and throughout Washington. Presidential administrations have historically relied on former leaders of agencies like the CIA or the FBI, who typically maintain a security clearance after their service has ended, for advice on matters of national security.

In a moment of crisis, these people may offer valuable insight and expertise that could help inform the latest administration’s decision, the CNN Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr said. “You want to be able to go back to the former officials who dealt with these problems and be able to talk with them in a classified setting,” Starr said on Monday.

“Given the amount of turnover in the Trump administration, it might be, from a national security standpoint, rather valuable to retain these people, to have that ability to consult them,” she said.

The White House said former CIA Director John Brennan, former national security adviser Susan Rice, and former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper were among those whose security clearance Trump was considering revoking. The White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, accused the group of having “politicized” and “monetized” their clearances.

Starr disputed that claim, saying: “They don’t go on TV and disclose classified information. They don’t go trolling through files and computer discs. They don’t even have, necessarily, a need to know that would allow them to get into classified information.”

James comeyDrew Angerer/Getty ImagesJames Comey.

Former FBI Director James Comey, former National Security Agency Director Michael Hayden, and former Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe were also singled out by the White House. Comey and a representative for McCabe responded to the proposal on Monday, saying their security clearances ended when they were fired from the bureau.

“These clearances exist to further the national security of the United States, and that’s the only people that are entitled to have it,” Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida said during a CNN interview.

Trump has been at odds with the US intelligence community in the week since his summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin. At a joint press conference, Trump showed deference toward Putin and suggested he believed the Russian leader over the US intelligence apparatus on the finding that Russian operatives interfered in the 2016 US presidential election.

Trump earned some particularly fiery rebukes after the summit from the former US intelligence officers he is now targeting:

  • Brennan called Trump’s deference to Putin “treasonous.”
  • Clapper said Trump “seems intimidated by Vladimir Putin.”
  • Hayden said he agreed with assertions that Trump believed Putin over the US’s intelligence agencies.
  • Chuck Hagel, who served as defence secretary in the Obama administration and was not named by the White House on Monday, said Trump “failed America” with the way he behaved around Putin.
  • Ash Carter, another former defence secretary who was not named by the Trump administration, said Trump’s performance in front of Putin was “like watching the destruction of a cathedral.”

The White House’s move is largely seen as retaliation against those who have been publicly critical of Trump – who has frequently attacked them in kind at his rallies and on social media.

Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said on Monday: “Politicizing security clearances to retaliate against former national security officials who criticise the president would set a terrible new precedent.”

“An enemies list is ugly, undemocratic, and un-American. Is there no length Trump will not go to stifle opposition? Wake up, GOP,” Schiff said.

In an emailed statement, Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland said:

“President Trump allowed his National Security Advisor Michael Flynn to keep his security clearance for weeks after the Justice Department warned that he was under investigation for lying about his secret conversations with the Russians, he allowed his son-in-law Jared Kushner to keep his security clearance after repeatedly concealing his foreign contacts, and he allowed his Staff Secretary Rob Porter to keep his security clearance after the White House received four FBI reports detailing allegations of domestic abuse.”

Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI in the Russia investigation and lost his security clearance in February 2017. He is now awaiting trial. Kushner eventually received a permanent security clearance in May after operating for months with only an interim one. Porter also had an interim security clearance before his firing in February.

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