Trump planning to 'revoke security clearances as punishment for critical White House officials'

President’s revocation of ex-CIA director John Brennan’s security clearance has been widely condemned

Karen Deyoung,Josh Dawsey
Sunday 19 August 2018 14:56 BST
Brennan, who served during President Barack Obama’s second term, has been strongly critical of Donald Trump since leaving office
Brennan, who served during President Barack Obama’s second term, has been strongly critical of Donald Trump since leaving office (AP)

The White House has drafted documents revoking the security clearances of current and former officials whom President Donald Trump has demanded be punished for criticising him or playing a role in the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election, according to senior administration officials.

Mr Trump wants to sign “most, if not all” of them, said one senior White House official, who indicated that communications aides, including press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Bill Shine, the newly named deputy chief of staff, have discussed the optimum times to release them as a distraction during unfavourable news cycles.

Some presidential aides echoed concerns raised by outside critics that the threatened revocations smack of a Nixonian enemies list, with little or no substantive national security justification. Particular worry has been expressed inside the White House about Mr Trump’s statement on Friday that he intends “very quickly” to strip the clearance of current Justice Department official Bruce Ohr, according to officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

Mr Trump, speaking to reporters as he left the White House to spend the weekend at his New Jersey golf club, called Mr Ohr “a disgrace”, charging that he is tied to special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of the Russia matter. “For him to be in the Justice Department, and to be doing what he did, that is a disgrace. That is disqualifying for Mueller,” he said.

His comments followed the release of a statement signed by 14 former CIA directors and deputy directors from Republican and Democratic administrations, as well as a former director of national intelligence, who called Mr Trump’s revocation this week of former CIA director John Brennan’s clearance a blatant attempt to “stifle free speech” and send an “inappropriate and deeply regrettable” signal to other public servants.

Later on Friday, 60 additional former CIA officials issued a statement objecting to the Brennan action and stating their belief “that former government officials have the right to express their unclassified views on what they see as critical national security issues without fear of being punished for doing so”.

While he has frequently called Mr Mueller’s inquiry a “rigged witch hunt”, and did so again on Friday, Mr Trump’s move against Mr Brennan, and threats to move against others, has brought the controversy to a new level. Ms Sanders announced the Brennan decision on Wednesday, citing what she called his “erratic conduct” and “wild outbursts” on television, as well as allegedly erroneous statements he had made.

The senior White House official acknowledged that the step against Mr Brennan had been prepared in late July, when Ms Sanders first said Mr Trump was considering it. But the decision to take that step was made this week to divert attention from nonstop coverage of a critical book released by fired Trump aide Omarosa Manigault Newman.

Consideration is being given to holding other prepared documents in reserve for similar opportunities in the future, the official said.

Former CIA director John Brennan calls Donald Trump inept, unethical, unstable

Mr Brennan, a career CIA official who served as director of the agency during President Barack Obama’s second term, briefed Mr Trump during the presidential transition about intelligence conclusions that Russia had interfered in the election on Mr Trump’s behalf. He has since been harshly critical, on Twitter and in appearances as a television commentator, of the president’s foreign policy and treatment of the intelligence community. He denounced Mr Trump’s performance at a summit with Russian president Vladimir Putin last month as “treasonous”.

The White House did not suggest that Mr Brennan had committed any security breaches, and Mr Trump himself, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, linked the clearance revocation to the “sham” Russia investigation, which he said Mr Brennan and others had “led”.

It was unclear what the argument would be for revoking Mr Ohr’s clearance, since deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein, while not specifying Mr Ohr’s current job, has said he has had no involvement in the Mueller investigation that begun last year.

But Mr Ohr knew Christopher Steele, the former British intelligence agent who was paid in 2016 to investigate Trump’s ties to Russia, first by anti-Trump conservative organisations and later by Hillary Clinton’s campaign. According to news reports and congressional testimony, the two men discussed Mr Trump before the election, and Mr Ohr reported the conversation to the FBI.

Mr Ohr is the only current official on the White House list of clearances Mr Trump wants to lift. The others are former director of national intelligence James Clapper; former CIA and FBI directors Michael Hayden and James Comey; Obama national security adviser Susan Rice; former FBI officials Andrew McCabe, Lisa Page and Peter Strzok; and former acting attorney general Sally Yates. Several of them have said they no longer have clearances.

In his Friday comments, Mr Trump said he had gotten a “tremendous response” for his action against Mr Brennan. “If anything, I’m giving him a bigger voice,” he said. “Many people don’t even know who he is ... I’ve never respected him.”

Similarly, the president said he did not know retired navy admiral William McRaven, former head of the US Special Operations Command, who in a Thursday op-ed in The Washington Post called Mr Trump’s tactics “McCarthy-era” and said it would be an honour to have Mr Trump lift his security clearance “so I can add my name to the list of men and women who have spoken up against your presidency”.

Meanwhile, the statement by former CIA directors and deputies was quickly pulled together on Thursday by George Tenet, who served as CIA director in the Bill Clinton and George W Bush administrations, and former deputy director Michael Morell, according to Mr Hayden, who also signed the document.

Other signatories include Clapper and former CIA directors William Webster, Robert Gates, Porter Goss, Leon Panetta and David Petraeus, as well as five former deputy directors and former director of national intelligence Dennis Blair.

“We all agree that the president’s action regarding John Brennan and the threats of similar action against other former officials has nothing to do with who should and should not hold security clearances – and everything to do with an attempt to stifle free speech,” the statement said.

Several former officials have said they rarely use their clearances, which allow them to serve as institutional memories and provide advice to current officials, if requested. Mr Hayden said he had been to the agency once – at his own request, for a briefing on Africa in preparation for a speech – since stepping down a decade ago.

While Mr Brennan was a clear target of Mr Trump’s action, Mr Hayden said, another is “everybody else on the list ... Watch your step or this is going to happen to you.”

“The third group, I think, is the broader intelligence community,” Mr Hayden said. “In essence, it’s been demonstrated to them that if you tell this president something he doesn’t want to hear, something he doesn’t believe, he’s prepared to retaliate.

“There are a lot of times you have to go in there and tell him something he doesn’t want to hear. This series of events,” he said, “has made that even harder than it already is.”

The Washington Post

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in