“I would consider it an honor if you would revoked my security clearance as well,” William H. McRaven wrote in the Washington Post, expressing strong disapproval of the revocation of John Brennan’s security clearance. Admiral McRaven commanded the special forces which killed Osama bin Laden in 2011. Donald Trump wanted to punish Brennan both because he sees him as an instigator of the Russia probe, and for his criticisms of the 45th president’s job performance.
Recall that Brennan, after Trump’s Helsinki meeting with Vladimir Putin on July 16, accused the president of treason for having sided with the Russian leader, in opposition to the American intelligence agencies which found Russian interference in America’s 2016 election. The next day, Trump, realizing his mistake, explained it away as a slip of the tongue.
This explanation obviously lacks credibility, because the 45th president has never fully accepted the reality of Russian interference, seeing the idea as a stain on his 2016 victory, as well as possibly revealing his financial relationships with Russian oligarchs. Punishing Brennan by taking away his security clearance will not have a great impact on the former CIA Director’s personal or public life, but it does reconfirm the rupture between Trump and the intelligence services.
Former members of intelligence agencies maintain their security clearance for various reasons. Often, a new government will consult with with them, asking for assistance or clarification on matters of vital importance. The country suffers without access to this accumulated wisdom.
In the past, these transitions took place routinely, and intelligence officials generally remained anonymous. Brennan’s case is different, because Trump has never accepted, in word or deed, the intelligence agencies’ conclusions about Russian interference in the election.
The words are evident in the innumerable Tweets attacking not just special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s investigation, but all of the intelligence agencies. This campaign against the intelligence service began with the firing of FBI director James Comey after he refused to set aside the investigation of National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, who Trump had fired after a few weeks work. Having brushed Comey aside, the 45th president fired 25 FBI agents and Justice Department officials, including Andrew McCabe, second in command at the FBI, and Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates. Trump has also expressed disapproval of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, both of whom the president himself nominated. In the first case, he has mocked and publicly insulted the Attorney General, and suggested that Sessions should end the probe into Russiagate. However, Rosenstein is actually the person responsible for the investigation, since Sessions had to recuse himself due to conflicts of interest because he was involved in Trump’s electoral campaign.
The revoking of Brennan’s security clearance, therefore, is not, as many analysts have suggested, a distraction. It is, rather, another attack on the intelligence agencies, with the aim of directly and indirectly threatening Mueller’s inquiry, but at the same time diminishing the consequences, with little success, as recent events demonstrate.
White House counsel Don McGahn has been co-operating with Mueller for nine months, and has spoken with investigators at least three times, for a total of 30 hours. Paul Manafort, who served for four months as Trump’s campaign manager, has just been found guilty on eight counts of fraud. Michael Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer, pleaded guilty to 8 charges, including one involving violation of election law for a political candidate (who is not named, but easily identifiable). In addition, the danger that these individuals pose in providing further information to Mueller is increased by testimonies still to come.
The revocation of Brennan’s security clearance, in essence, is tied to Russiagate, which worries the current White House resident. Nevertheless, the action taken against Brennan goes beyond him personally, threatening others, and creating uncertainty for all of the 4 million public servants who have it and could lose it if the president were to decide to take it away. The clearance is essential for many of these people, who would lose their jobs without it. It’s also important to keep in mind the negative effect on those considering working in intelligence in the future.
The climate of uncertainty brought about by the attack on Brennan has hit the entire intelligence world. That is why more than three hundred former members of the intelligence services, who have served under both Republican and Democratic presidents, signed a letter supporting Brennan. The list includes all 15 former heads of the CIA, who served from Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama, including 95-year-old William H. Webster, who directed both the FBI and the CIA in Republican and Democratic administrations. The signers do not necessarily agree with all Brennan’s political ideas, but they are reclaiming the right to free speech, a right McRaven put in practice in his Washington Post piece. The former admiral had hoped that after the election, Trump would become the kind of president the country needed. McRaven defined such a president as one who would put the well-being of all above his own interests, serving as a model for everyone. Trump, according to McRaven, had “embarrassed” us before our children, and humiliated us in the eyes of the world. Worse, he has “divided the country.”
Translated from Italian by Linda Maceri