On July 23, 2018, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters that President Donald Trump is considering pulling the security clearances of former CIA Director John Brennan, an NBC News contributor; former FBI Director James B. Comey; former CIA Director Michael V. Hayden; former National Security Adviser Susan E. Rice; former Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr.; and former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe.
The fact that neither Comey nor McCabe have any clearances to remove seems to have escaped the president in the heat of his most recent temper tantrum. Let’s be clear: In terms of the four named former officials who do still have clearances, no official misconduct or illegality has been alleged in connection with their clearances. And although some conservatives, including Sen. Rand Paul, claim these public servants are somehow “monetizing” their clearances, there is no evidence to suggest that any of them are hawking classified data in return for cash payments. In fact, if the president had any reason to suspect that these outspoken critics were disclosing national secrets, he would likely have them in handcuffs before their next television appearance.
Partisan politics, not national security concerns, are the problem here. Because besides their many decades of combined experience, the main thing these former Barack Obama administration officials have in common is a desire to tell the truth. And this is what so perturbs Trump — they are convincingly and intelligently criticizing his conduct. They know too much, and have access to too much information of value to the American public. This of course begs the question, what exactly does he not want us to know about?
But before we get into that, it’s important to remember why officials have security clearances to begin with. Trump is not requesting a study of why former officials can maintain their clearances (although if he did, I don’t imagine there would be much protest.) So the White House’s actions and statements must be viewed in the current context. I understand this context well, as I served as the FBI’s Assistant Director for Counterintelligence.
Besides the many decades of combined experience, the main thing these former Barack Obama administration officials have in common is a desire to tell the truth.
When I retired from that position, I maintained my clearance for a year. This wasn’t because I enjoyed filling out thick, mind-numbing documents that ask for the Vehicle Identification Numbers on my cars, the addresses of temporary, corporate apartments I lived in seven years ago, or because I relished the prospect of being hooked up to a polygraph machine and asked if I socialized with foreign intelligence officers (yes, many allied officers). The FBI asked me to do this for the sake of continuity, transition and maintenance of institutional knowledge. I agreed.
This is just common sense. If the FBI or other intelligence agency had a question about some investigative decision, strategy discussion, or policy issue, they wanted the ability to reach out, brief me on the issue and seamlessly move forward in securing our nation from threats. When that transition period ended, the FBI allowed my clearance to lapse. For someone who was the director of an agency, the period can last much longer. If my clearances were still in place today, perhaps I too would be subject to Trump’s call to revoke clearances of people who he doesn’t like.
Remember, the FBI, the CIA and the intelligence community must be free to make non-partisan analytical conclusions. The men and women who serve in these positions are motivated by the desire to keep Americans safe regardless of politics. Trump, of course, seems not to understand this. Since his inauguration he has repeatedly denigrated the intelligence community and questioned its integrity. Such rhetoric has consequences: New polling shows favorable views of the FBI have dropped 16 percentage points among Republicans since early 2017.
Maybe the president hopes a weaker intelligence community won’t be able to combat his false narrative that all is well with North Korea and Russia. Or maybe he simply feels threatened by representatives of the rule of law.
But again, we have to ask why only Obama appointees have been targeted. The White House found it perfectly acceptable to allow Rob Porter to maintain his (interim) security clearance as staff secretary despite allegations that he had physically abused multiple women. The president also found no issue with allowing his son-in-law Jared Kushner daily access for over a year to Top Secret intelligence while the FBI was still conducting Kushner’s complex and problematic background inquiry. (Kushner now has permanent clearance, although he is not able to view the most sensitive documents.)
There are also plenty of former Trump administration officials with active clearances — although none of them have yet had their clearances questioned.
There are also plenty of former Trump administration officials with active clearances — although none of them have yet had their clearances questioned. This administration has a record-breaking turnover rate, so former officials are exceedingly easy to find. Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, former National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, and others still maintain their clearances for the same valid reasons that I maintained mine: out of respect for their expertise and to ensure a smooth transition.
This move is based entirely on retribution. None of the officials named are profiting because of their access to current active intelligence. Television networks pay analysts for their experience and insight — not to commit espionage in front of a national audience. These former officials have access to intelligence because our nation asked them to maintain a clearance. If the president is seeking to silence his detractors, he lacks an understanding of free speech under the Constitution — and the ability to predict logical outcomes. All this is coming from a president with so many issues that he would likely never pass a background investigation for a Top Secret clearance, no matter how hard he tried.
C. Frank Figliuzzi is the former Assistant Director for Counterintelligence at the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Before that, he served as the FBI's Chief Inspector, overseeing special inquiries including all reviews of the use of deadly force by FBI agents worldwide. He currently is the chief operating officer of ETS Risk Management, Inc. and a national security contributor for NBC News.