Will Trump revoke security clearances? ‘Oh, he’s just trolling’

House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wis. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan is dismissing President Donald Trump’s threat to revoke the security clearances of six former top national security and intelligence officials who have been critical of his administration.

“I think he’s just trolling people, honestly,” Ryan told reporters at a news conference Tuesday, addressing what opponents and experts say would be an unprecedented politicization of the clearance process.

“This is something that’s in the purview of the executive branch,” Ryan added with a laugh.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Monday that the president was “exploring the mechanisms” to strip clearance from former CIA Director John Brennan as well as five other former officials who have held some of the most sensitive positions in government: former FBI Director Jim Comey; James Clapper, the former director of national intelligence; former CIA Director Michael Hayden; former national security adviser Susan Rice; and Andrew McCabe, who served as Trump’s deputy FBI director until he was fired in March.

The leaders have served in both Democratic and Republican administrations, including Trump’s. But at least two of the former officials, McCabe and Comey, do not currently have security clearances, making the threat moot.

Sanders accused the officials of having “politicized and in some cases monetized their public service and security clearances” by making “baseless accusations” that the Trump administration had improper contact with Russia or was influenced by Russia.

“The fact that people with security clearances are making these baseless charges provides inappropriate legitimacy to accusations with zero evidence,” she said.

Sanders did not cite specific comments made by any of the officials. But the president has been seething over the backlash to his meeting last week with Russia’s Vladimir Putin and the ongoing investigations into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election, whether his campaign aides were involved in the effort and whether he obstructed justice.

Experts said there is some dispute about whether the president has the authority to unilaterally terminate a security clearance, but said such a move would be unprecedented and ill-advised.

“Legalities aside, it seems like a terrible mistake to use the security clearance system as an instrument of political vendettas,” said Steven Aftergood at the Federation of American Scientists’ Project on Government Secrecy.

Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff of California, a ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, tweeted that “politicizing security clearances to retaliate against former national security officials who criticize the President would set a terrible new precedent.”

“An enemies list is ugly, undemocratic and un-American,” he added.

The threat to deny the officials access to classified information marks the latest escalation in the president’s ongoing war with the members of the U.S. intelligence community. It came hours after Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky tweeted that he would be meeting with Trump to discuss revoking Brennan’s clearance for his scathing criticism of the president’s performance at the summit with Putin.

Paul publicly raised the idea of stripping Brennan’s security clearance — and pension — during appearances on Fox News last week, where he also called Brennan “the most biased, bigoted, over-the-top, hyperbolic sort of unhinged director of the CIA we’ve ever had.”

Former CIA directors and other top national security officials are typically allowed to keep their clearances, at least for some period, as a courtesy and so they can be in a position to advise their successors. The clearances are also sometimes required to work for government contractors.

While standing next to Putin, Trump last week openly questioned his own intelligence agencies’ conclusions that Moscow tried to tip the scales of the 2016 election in his favor and seemed to accept Putin’s insistence that Russia’s hands were clean.

Brennan slammed those comments as “nothing short of treasonous” and accused Trump of being “wholly in the pocket of Putin.”

Clapper, reacting to the White House talk of revoking clearances, said on CNN that Trump’s idea was “kind of a petty way of retribution, I suppose, for speaking out against the president, which I think, on the part of all of us, are borne out of genuine concerns about President Trump.”

Hayden tweeted Monday that revoking his security clearance wouldn’t “have any effect on what I say or write.” And former Brennan deputy chief of staff Nick Shapiro said Brennan “hasn’t made one penny off of his clearance” and “doesn’t need a security clearance to speak out against the failings of Trump.”

Melissa Schwartz, a spokeswoman for McCabe, tweeted that his security clearance was deactivated when he was terminated, per FBI policy.

“You would think the White House would check with the FBI before trying to throw shiny objects to the press corps,” she wrote.

Brookings Institution legal analyst Benjamin Wittes, a Comey friend, tweeted that he’d texted with Comey and that the former FBI director told him that he no longer has a security clearance and was “‘read out’ when he left government as per normal practice.”

Wittes added that Comey “declined a temporary clearance from the (inspector general) to read the classified annex to the IG’s recent report. He didn’t want to see any classified material lest the president accuse him of leaking it.”

As for whether Trump has the authority to do what Sanders suggested, Aftergood called it “a disputed question.”

John V. Berry, an attorney who regularly represents federal intelligence agency employees, said he didn’t see any reason the president wouldn’t be able to revoke clearance but that doing so would “be terrible for America” and “totally defeat the process of defending national security.”

“If we start interjecting politics into this, our country’s going to be significantly weakened,” Berry said.

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, ranking Democrat on the House oversight committee, said Trump had allowed his former national security adviser Michael Flynn “to keep his security clearance for weeks after the Justice Department warned that he was under investigation for lying about his secret conversations with the Russians” and “allowed his son-in-law Jared Kushner to keep his security clearance after repeatedly concealing his foreign contacts.”

“President Trump should get his own staff’s security clearances in order rather than engaging in crass political retribution against former officials,” Cummings said in a statement.

The No. 2 Republican in the Senate, John Cornyn of Texas, told reporters he can understand Trump’s aggravation but accusing the former top officials of abusing their security clearance is “a very serious allegation and I want to see what the results are.”

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Associated Press writers Deb Riechmann and Lisa Mascaro contributed to this report.
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Obama’s pick for CIA director defends drone strikes

President Barack Obama (L) stands next to John Brennan, (R), during the announcement for his nominations for a new secretary of defense and new CIA director at the White House in Washington January 7, 2013.REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
President Barack Obama (L) stands next to John Brennan, (R), during the announcement for his nominations for a new secretary of defense and new CIA director at the White House in Washington January 7, 2013.
REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

In White House councils, John Brennan has been privy to the most secret U.S. intelligence programs. Outwardly, he has been the administration’s most public defender of one of President Barack Obama’s most controversial practices – the expanded use of armed drone aircraft to kill terrorism suspects overseas.

This is the second time that Obama has sought to put Brennan at the helm of the CIA, and his confirmation process is likely to revisit old controversies over U.S. counterterrorism measures undertaken by the administrations of Obama and George W. Bush.

Brennan, a 25-year CIA veteran, withdrew his name from consideration as Obama’s first director of the agency in November 2008 following liberals’ criticism that he had done too little to condemn the use by the Bush administration of interrogation techniques such as waterboarding, widely considered torture.

This time around, Brennan’s defense of targeted killing by drones is likely to provide additional fodder for critics, although barring new revelations, he appears likely to be confirmed.

Deprived of the CIA post four years ago, Brennan, 57, became instead one of Obama’s closest advisors on counterterrorism and homeland security. That proximity has made him a more powerful figure in the administration than the director of national intelligence – who will become his boss if he is confirmed.

Brennan, who grew up in New Jersey, is described by those who know him as a “straight arrow” and man of high morals.

“The word for John is ‘intense’,” said A.B. “Buzzy” Krongard, a former top CIA official who was once Brennan’s boss there. “John’s all about commitment.”

His long working hours at the CIA and the White House are legendary. Obama, in announcing Brennan’s nomination on Monday, quipped: “I’m not sure he’s slept in four years.”

Brennan pledged, if confirmed, to “make it my mission to ensure that the CIA has the tools it needs to keep our nation safe and that its work always reflects the liberties, the freedoms, and the values that we hold so dear.”

PICTURE OF CLOSENESS

Brennan was at the president’s side during some of the most significant security incidents during his first term.

The White House last week released a photograph of him briefing Obama on the elementary school massacre in Newtown, Connecticut. He is also visible in an iconic photo of top officials at the White House monitoring, in real time, the U.S. commando raid that killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in 2011.

Brennan is praised by former CIA officials who have worked with him. “John is a great choice – highly experienced, extremely dedicated, a person of integrity,” said John McLaughlin, former acting CIA director.

But, by choosing him, Obama has given both liberals and conservative Republicans an opportunity to re-open the debate over Bush administration interrogation policies.

In a 2007 CBS television interview, while Brennan was out of government, he appeared to assert that enhanced interrogation techniques had produced useful information. “There have been a lot of information that has come out from these interrogation procedures that the agency has in fact used against the real hardcore terrorists. It has saved lives,” he said.

Inside the CIA, where career intelligence officers consider it a point of pride to be above politics, employees will want to see whether Brennan’s time at the White House has made him a more political figure.

“He will have to overcome the impression that he has become a political player who overachieved in spinning things to favor the president at the expense of the agency,” a former CIA official said on condition of anonymity.

Shortly after the Navy SEAL raid that killed bin Laden, Brennan briefed the press, telling them that the al Qaeda leader had been killed in a firefight and had tried to use one of his wives to shield himself from the attackers.

“Here is bin Laden, who has been calling for these attacks, living in this million-dollar-plus compound, living in an area that is far removed from the front, hiding behind women who were put in front of him as a shield,” he said at the time. “I think it really just speaks to just how false his narrative has been over the years.”

The White House later retracted this account but said Brennan was speaking on the basis of the best information available at the time.

Although he rose through the ranks of the CIA’s analytical wing, Brennan also worked on the agency’s operational, spying side, and at one point served as the agency’s chief of station in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

Said to be conversant in Arabic, Brennan played a hands-on role in Obama’s Yemen policy, which was aimed at easing President Ali Abdullah Saleh from office while ensuring counterterrorism cooperation stayed on track. He traveled to Sanaa several times.

Senator Dianne Feinstein, who chairs the Senate intelligence committee that will hold a hearing on the nomination, said Brennan would make a “strong and positive director” of the CIA. In a statement, the California Democrat said that she would discuss with Brennan CIA detention and interrogation operations.

DEFENDER OF DRONES

In April 2012, Brennan publicly defended the U.S. campaign of lethal drone strikes as legal under international law. It was a rare public justification for classified operations that government officials infrequently discuss in public and that the CIA does not officially acknowledge.

In June 2011, Brennan alluded to drone strikes more opaquely, saying that over the prior year “not a single collateral death” had resulted from counterterrorism operations that were “exceptionally precise and surgical.” Rights groups challenged the assertion that no civilians died during that period as a result of drone strikes.

The earlier comment came three months before a CIA drone killed Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, an American born member of al Qaeda, in Yemen. Another drone strike killed his 16-year-old U.S.-born son.

U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan have been a source of tension with the United States. One national security official familiar with Brennan’s White House record said he is expected to favor aggressively moving forward with drone operations, even at the expense of offending Pakistani sensibilities.

The CIA and the U.S. military in recent years have been working more closely together, as in the bin Laden operation, which was run by the CIA but executed by the SEALs.

“Everybody looks at the CIA as insular, as sometimes difficult to establish relationships with, and so the degree to which the director can be one of the key forces for reaching out and breaking down those walls is really helpful,” retired General Stanley McChrystal said in an interview with Reuters. “I think he can certainly be one of those types of leaders.”

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White House claims Taliban link to Times Square bomb attempt

Attorney General Eric Holder (Reuters)

Saying they obtained new evidence, senior White House officials said Sunday that the Pakistani Taliban were behind the failed Times Square bombing.

The attempt marks the first time the group has been able to launch an attack on U.S. soil. And while U.S. officials have downplayed the threat — citing the bomb’s lack of sophistication — the incident in Times Square and Christmas Day airline bomber indicate growing strength by overseas terrorist groups linked to al-Qaida even as the CIA says their operations are seriously degraded.

The finding also raises new questions about the U.S. relationship with Pakistan, which is widely known to have al-Qaida and other terrorist groups operating within its borders.

Concerning the Pakistani Taliban, Attorney General Eric Holder said: “We know that they helped facilitate it; we know that they helped direct it. And I suspect that we are going to come up with evidence which shows that they helped to finance it. They were intimately involved in this plot.”

John Brennan, the president’s homeland security and counterterrorism adviser, made similar remarks, linking the bomber to the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, or TTP.

Neither official said what the new evidence was.

Faisal Shahzad, a U.S. citizen of Pakistani descent, is believed to have spent five months in Pakistan before returning to the United States in February and preparing his attack.

Shahzad has told investigators that he trained in the lawless tribal areas of Waziristan, where both al-Qaida and the Pakistani Taliban operate. He was arrested aboard an Emirates Airlines jet in New York just minutes before it was scheduled to take off for Dubai.

After the attack, U.S. officials said they were exploring potential links to terrorist groups overseas but said it was likely that Shahzad was acting alone and that it was an isolated incident.

Last week, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, told NBC News that “at this point I have no information that it’s anything other than a one-off.” Gen. David Petraeus told The Associated Press that Shahzad apparently operated as a “lone wolf.”

Brennan on Sunday rejected suggestions that that the attempted bombing shows that terrorist groups overseas were gaining strength.

“They now are relegated to trying to do these unsophisticated attacks, showing that they have inept capabilities in training,” he said.

The link between an attack on U.S. soil and terrorist groups operating inside Pakistan opens up a new chapter in relations between the two countries. Until recently, administration officials have said they thought Islamabad was doing all it could.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Washington expects more cooperation from Pakistan in fighting terrorism and warned of “severe consequences” if an attack on U.S. soil were successful and traced back to the South Asian country.

Brennan said Islamabad was being very cooperative in the investigation but that the U.S. wants to know exactly who may have been helping Shahzad.

“There are a number of terrorist and militant groups operating in Pakistan,” he said. “And we need to make sure there’s no support being given to them by the Pakistani government.”

Pakistani army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, who last week said he doubted the Pakistani Taliban had anything to do with the failed bombing, declined to comment Sunday. He said representatives of the country’s civilian government should respond. They were not available for comment.

Brennan would not say whether Shahzad may be connected to fugitive al-Qaida cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, other than to acknowledge his Internet sermons are popular among extremist Muslims.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Pakistan has recently stepped up efforts to root out extremist militants.

“The Pakistanis have been doing so much more than 18 months or two years ago any of us would have expected,” Gates told reporters at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., this week.

He referred to Pakistani Army offensives, dating to spring 2009, against Taliban extremists in areas near the Afghan border, including in south Waziristan.

Gates said the Obama administration is sticking to its policy of offering to do as much training and other military activity inside Pakistan as the Pakistani government is willing to accept.

“It’s their country,” Gates said. “They remain in the driver’s seat, and they have their foot on the accelerator.”

Brennan spoke on CNN’s “State of the Union,” “Fox News Sunday” and CBS’ “Face the Nation.” Holder spoke on NBC’s “Meet the Press” and ABC’s “This Week.” Clinton’s interview with CBS’ “60 Minutes” is set to air Sunday.

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Associated Press writer Asif Shahzad in Islamabad contributed to this report.

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