President Donald Trump announced Wednesday he has revoked former CIA director John Brennan’s security clearance, marking an unprecedented use of a president’s authority over the classification system to strike back at one of his prominent critics.
“I have a unique constitutional responsibility to protect the nation’s classified information, including by controlling access to it. Today, in fulfilling that responsibility, I have decided to revoke the security clearance of John Brennan, former director of the Central Intelligence Agency,” Trump said in a statement dictated in the White House briefing room by his press secretary Sarah Sanders. “Mr. Brennan’s lying and recent conduct characterized by increasingly frenzied commentary is wholly inconsistent with access to the nation’s most closely held secrets.”
Brennan is the first former national security official to see his security clearance revoked since the White House announced last month that Trump was considering taking that action against several of his most vocal critics in the national security world.
“This action is part of a broader effort by Mr. Trump to suppress freedom of speech & punish critics. It should gravely worry all Americans, including intelligence professionals, about the cost of speaking out. My principles are worth far more than clearances. I will not relent,” Brennan tweeted after the announcement.
The decision comes as the White House is looking to turn the page on a news cycle that for several days has been dominated by startling allegations leveled against Trump by Omarosa Manigault-Newman, a former senior White House official and longtime Trump adviser.
The White House provided no evidence that Brennan has misused his security clearance since leaving government.
Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, the top Trump-appointed intelligence official, was not consulted on revoking Brennan’s clearance, an official with knowledge of the matter told CNN’s Jim Sciutto.
While Brennan has been a vocal critic of the President since Trump took office – calling him unfit to serve – he is well-regarded by both Republicans and Democrats as a seasoned national security expert.
Before serving as homeland security adviser and later CIA Director under President Barack Obama, Brennan served as the inaugural director of the National Counterterrorism Center under President George W. Bush. Prior to that, Brennan served for more than two decades as a career CIA official.
Trump said in a statement Wednesday he is still considering revoking the security clearances of several others: former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, former FBI Director James Comey, former CIA director and National Security Agency chief Michael Hayden, former deputy attorney general Sally Yates, former national security adviser Susan Rice, former deputy FBI director Andrew McCabe, former FBI officials Lisa Page and Peter Strzok, and Bruce Ohr, a current Justice Department official.
The names amount to an unofficial enemies list for this White House. All of those individuals have been the target of Trump’s public ire or criticized Trump – or both.
Despite that, Sanders insisted on Wednesday that Trump’s decision to revoke Brennan’s clearance and put other critics on notice is not politically motivated.
“The President has a constitutional responsibility to protect classified information and who has access to it, and that’s what he’s doing is fulfilling that responsibility in this action,” Sanders said.
She declined to say why the list included no supporters of the President, such as Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI.
Trump’s statement was dated July 26 – three days after the White House first said the President was considering the move – in an initial version released by the White House. A White House aide blamed the date on a cut and paste error.
In an interview with the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday, Trump said he had wanted to announce the decision last week but his schedule was too “hectic.” The President spent most of the last week on a working vacation at his property in Bedminster, New Jersey.
Trump answered critics who say his only targets are people who served in Democratic administrations, telling the Journal he would fire a Republican too, “if I thought they were incompetent or crazy.”
Trump in his statement justified the move against Brennan by citing the CIA’s infiltration of Senate computers during Brennan’s time at the helm of the agency during the Obama administration – for which Brennan subsequently issued a public apology – and maintained Brennan has “recently leveraged his status” as a former official to “make a series of unfounded and outrageous allegations” about the administration, which Trump called “increasingly frenzied commentary.”
“Such access is particularly inappropriate when such officials have transitioned into highly partisan positions and seek to use real or perceived access to sensitive information to validate their political attacks,” Sanders said, reading from Trump’s statement.
There is no evidence that Brennan has leveraged classified information or even his access to classified information to bolster his criticism of Trump.
Top national security officials typically retain their security clearances after leaving government as a professional courtesy and so they can be brought in by current officials to consult on national security issues.
“Neither of these justifications supports Mr. Brennan’s continued access to classified information,” Trump said in his statement Wednesday.
Officials at risk of seeing their security clearances revoked expressed concern about Trump using his presidential authority to strike back at critics but said revoking their security clearances would have little impact on them.
Clapper, the former director of national intelligence, said he has not accessed classified information since leaving his position in January 2017.
“Will the republic stand or fall on whether John (Brennan) retains his access to classified information? Of course not. The larger issue here, to me, throughout has been infringement on First Amendment rights and I think people ought to think seriously about that,” Clapper said on CNN.
Hayden, the former CIA and National Security Agency chief, said losing his clearance would “have a marginal impact on the work I do.”
“With regard to the implied threat today that I could lose my clearance, that will have no impact on what I think, say or write,” Hayden said.
In an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper, Hayden warned that the revocation amounts to a threat from the administration.
“The White House just messaged the entire American intelligence community: If you stand up and say things that upset the President or with which he disagrees, he will punish you,” Hayden said on CNN’s “Anderson Cooper 360.”
“That is a horrible message to be sending to folks who are there to tell you objective truth,” he said.
CNN’s Kevin Liptak and Clare Foran contributed to this report.