Here’s the explanation Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch gave when asked why he supported President Donald Trump’s decision to strip former CIA Director John Brennan’s security clearance:
“I’m surprised it took him so long. Brennan has not been a friend of the administration at all.”
Hatch is not alone in that view. “John Brennan is a cable news pundit,” Trump White House senior counselor Kellyanne Conway said Friday morning in Washington. “He’s a former CIA director who since then has shown no interest in helping this administration.”
Um, what? By this standard, the criteria for stripping a former senior intelligence official of his security credentials is solely how nice and supportive he is to the current administration?
That’s not how this works. Not any of it. How do I know? Because there are a set of 13 guidelines by which national security clearances are typically evaluated and revoked. Those factors:
1. Allegiance to the United States
2. Foreign influence
3. Foreign preference
4. Sexual behavior
5. Personal conduct
6. Financial considerations
7. Alcohol consumption
8. Drug involvement and substance misuse
9. Psychological conditions
10. Criminal conduct
11. Handling protected information
12. Outside activities
13. Use of information technology
(You can read broader explanations of each criteria here.)
“Not being a friend to an administration” isn’t listed above.
Now, the White House’s official explanation for the revocation of Brennan’s credentials was slightly different than the “friend” argument forwarded by Hatch and Conway. Asked about the decision, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders read a statement from the President that said this:
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“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 and facilities, the very aim of our adversaries which is to sow division and chaos. Mr. Brennan has recently leveraged his status as a former high-ranking official with access to highly sensitive information to make a series of unfounded and outrageous allegations – wild outbursts on the internet and television – about this Administration.”
That doesn’t cite any specific criteria for the revocation, although the reference to “recent conduct characterized by increasingly frenzied commentary” would seem to hint at either “personal conduct” or “psychological conditions.” Of course, Trump himself seemed to undermine the official White House statement on the “why” of Mueller’s security revocation, telling The Wall Street Journal: “I think that whole – I call it the rigged witch hunt – is a sham. And these people led it! So I think it’s something that had to be done.”
Then, on Friday before leaving for New York and then New Jersey for the weekend, Trump did it again. He blasted Brennan, said he was getting a “tremendous response” to his decision and then began bashing the “rigged witch hunt” again.
To be clear: President Trump is within his rights to revoke any security clearance he wants. And he’s likely to do more of it. (Nota bene: Usually these sorts of security revocations go from the specific departments *up* to the President, not from the top down.)
But it’s important to remember that we aren’t just talking about Trump’s presidency here.
We are talking about setting precedents for how a president can and should interact with his national security apparatus and intelligence community. If you are a Republican who supports Trump, you may be just fine with his decision to revoke Brennan’s security clearance. But, would you be equally OK with a Democratic president revoking the security clearance of current CIA Director Gina Haspel if she is critical of decisions the next administration makes or not friendly enough to that administration?
And therein lies the rub.