President Trump has been criticized for politicizing the intelligence community by threatening to strip the security clearances of former top officials including John Brennan and James Clapper. But numerous past and present senior intelligence officials say that the Obama administration started the politicization -- and that revoking the clearances of those who abuse the privilege for partisan purposes may help right the ship.
“As is often the case with the Trump administration, the rollout of the policy is bad, but the idea driving the policy is sound,” said one senior intelligence official who, like others interviewed for this article, spoke to RealClearInvestigations only on condition of anonymity. “Under some Obama-era intelligence chiefs, intelligence was used as a political weapon. We need to root that out, not reward it.”
It is not clear if the White House is moving forward on Trump’s threats last month to revoke those clearances. After Brennan’s continued media attacks on Trump following the Helsinki summit with President Vladimir Putin of Russia, Sen. Rand Paul advised the president to strip him of his clearance. The White House did not respond to requests for comment.
Some sources say former CIA director Brennan, ex-director of national intelligence Clapper and others with security clearances were emboldened to pursue political agendas through the anti-Trump media, in a climate of impunity created by the Justice Department’s failure to prosecute leaks attending Donald Trump’s election. Notable among the leaks, they said, was a top unnamed official’s “unmasking” of Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn in a January 2017 Washington Post column by David Ignatius, sourced to classified intercepts of Flynn’s contacts with the Russian ambassador. Leaking such classified information is a felony.
"The very people who are now talking the most know the details of how the Flynn intercept was leaked," a senior U.S. official told RealClearInvestigations. "They wouldn't be out talking like that if they'd been interviewed by the FBI." The Department of Justice declined to comment.
In February, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said the Justice Department is “aggressively” investigating the Flynn leak as one of 27 open investigations into unauthorized disclosures of classified intelligence. But to date none of those have brought indictments.
Brennan has used his current position as contributor to NBC News and MSNBC, as well as his social media presence, to wage a rhetorical assault on Trump. He described Trump’s meeting with Putin in Helsinki last month as “nothing short of treasonous.” From his perch at CNN, Clapper has launched like-minded barrages against the White House. The networks did not respond to requests for comment from or about Brennan or Clapper.
Security clearances are commonly extended for the top leaders of the intelligence community after they leave their jobs, on the rare chance that they should be called upon to consult with their successors.
“The Trump administration is not going to call in Susan Rice for advice, never mind John Brennan,” said one active intelligence officer. “And if someone does get called in from a previous administration they can get a temporary clearance, akin to a one-day non-disclosure agreement.”
Trump’s threatened break with the tradition has been characterized by critics as a muzzling of free speech and open public debate. “Politicizing security clearances to retaliate against former national security officials who criticize the President would set a terrible new precedent,” the ranking minority member of the House Intelligence Committee, California Rep. Adam Schiff, tweeted last month.
Revoking security clearances would curtail the ex-officials’ ability to use for partisan ends the resources and institutions of the federal government, including classified intelligence. Published reports show that Obama-era intelligence officials embarked on this course even while they were in government.
Brennan and Clapper’s government records are tarnished by improprieties and abuses that they have been reluctant to acknowledge. Brennan was compelled to apologize to the Senate Intelligence Committee after it was discovered the CIA searched the computers of Senate staffers. The Obama administration used the foreign intelligence surveillance system to spy on congressional critics of the Iran nuclear deal as well as pro-Israel activists.
Clapper has denied that he misled Congress in 2013 when he said the National Security Agency does not collect data on American citizens.
According to the House Intelligence Committee’s March 2018 Russia report, Clapper also gave inconsistent testimony about his contacts with the press, including his future employer CNN, regarding the Clinton campaign-funded dossier alleging Trump’s ties to Russian officials. Clapper at first denied discussing it with the media and then admitted that he had.
With Clapper’s subsequent hiring as a national security consultant at CNN, Senator Paul and other conservatives argued that the media was effectively monetizing access to classified intelligence. “If they still have clearances, former colleagues still active may be passing them information,” says an acting intelligence official.
Another concern is that the emerging relationship between the press and the intelligence community may inspire active intelligence officers to leak to preferred news organizations with an eye to a job after retirement. “The situation,” says the official, “is ripe for abuse.”
Television contracts are status-enhancing and generous, but hardly more lucrative than the fees former top-level national security officials earn lobbying, consulting, or simply sitting on the boards of major financial, defense, or technology firms.
The issue, according to RCI’s sources, is that the growing alignment between anti-Trump media and former spy chiefs will further politicize intelligence, thereby compromising national security while continuing to fragment an already divided American public. All the while, the intelligence community is squandering the confidence of those they are sworn to serve.
“Brennan and Clapper and others certainly have the right to say what they like,” former CIA case officer Daniel Hoffman told RCI. “And their statements protected by the freedom of speech we enjoy in the U.S. are a measure of how concerned they are about this president. But while they get a favorable response from the ‘Amen’ chorus of Trump opponents, we should also consider the risk they are taking of feeding Trump's speculation they were partisan officials who sought to do him harm.”
Brennan claims not to have seen the infamous dossier alleging Trump’s ties to Russia until after the 2016 election, but circumstantial evidence suggests he disseminated reports on it to congressional leaders in August of that year.
Numerous Obama-era agencies, including the FBI and Justice and State departments, handled the dossier. Even though former FBI director James Comey called the documents “unverified and salacious,” his bureau and the DOJ used it to obtain a warrant to monitor the electronic communications of Trump campaign adviser Carter Page.
Hoffman, a Fox News analyst himself, has written critically of Brennan and Clapper’s media posture. As a former CIA station chief in Moscow, Hoffman said he is especially concerned about Brennan’s speculation that Trump could be compromised by the Russians.
“Brennan and Clapper are doing Putin's bidding when they speculate without facts,” Hoffman told RCI, “in Brennan's case that Putin could blackmail Trump, and in Clapper's that the Kremlin's interference swung the election to Trump. Senior intelligence officers should know we speculate at our own peril."
In contrast with Brennan and Clapper, other recent former CIA directors have demonstrated the kind of circumspection once standard in former intelligence chiefs. Robert Gates has balanced public criticisms of Trump with praise. Longtime Clinton ally Leon Panetta’s rebukes are, compared with Brennan and Clapper’s, temperate.
David Petraeus, Obama’s third CIA director, lost his security clearance after he was charged with leaking classified intelligence to his biographer and then-mistress Paula Broadwell. Petraeus was replaced by Brennan.
The Obama administration is notable for having aggressively prosecuted leaks that it perceived as dangerous to national security. Reporters Sharyl Attkisson, James Rosen, and a team at the Associated Press were among those the previous White House put under surveillance.
It was a different matter when leaking served the Obama administration’s political interests.
The Washington press corps is dependent on leaks, including classified intelligence, for stories. The Obama administration tweaked the ecosystem and encouraged officials to leak against the incoming Trump administration.
As the Obama team left office, it spread intelligence products regarding the Trump administration’s alleged ties to Russia to ensure that reports proliferated throughout the government. Multiplying the number of potential media sources increased the likelihood that intelligence would be leaked to the press.
It appears that’s what happened with the Flynn leak. As a veteran reporter on the national security beat told RCI: “After the Washington Post broke the Flynn story, a colleague called an Obama administration source and got an explosive story like that confirmed in 15 minutes. Even reporters at second-tier publications got the story confirmed, and quickly, because so many people in the administration knew about it.”
But where that leak started is a different issue. "There are only a few people the leak could have come from,” one senior U.S. official told RCI. “The Flynn intercept doesn't go to rank-and-file FBI agents. It goes through the top rungs up to Comey, and from there it can only go across. To top DOJ personnel, and the White House. It could also go to John Brennan and James Clapper."