President Trump’s decision this week to revoke the security clearance of former CIA Director John Brennan is disturbing, especially because of the reason given.
The president said Brennan was among those responsible for the special counsel investigation into possible links between the Trump campaign and Russia. His spokeswoman said the president is considering revoking the clearances of other former high-level officials for similar reasons.
None has been accused of compromising national security in any way. The unprecedented move seems aimed solely at silencing critics, punishing them for exercising their right to criticize the president. The president seems to be demanding loyalty in exchange for a security clearance, which is inappropriate in a free government.
Meanwhile, the attention given to this has shed light on another matter of importance. A Government Accountability Office report last year found that 4.2 million people had some form of security clearance as of 2015, a number that almost certainly has grown since then.
Can the nation be sure none among this vast group — a number larger than the populations of 24 states (including Utah) plus the District of Columbia — is compromising national secrets or, at the very least, has a justifiable need for such clearance?
It’s time for a comprehensive security clearance audit, but this must be done entirely free from partisan politics. People who may have been critical of the president, whether on social media or in some other way, should not be excluded for that reason alone.
Security clearances are not all the same. Often, people are given access to classified information in specific areas only. Clearance comes in one of four levels — confidential, secret, top secret and sensitive compartmented information. These are reviewed every few years, depending on the level.
Given the obvious interest by Russians and other foreign governments in obtaining state secrets, that timeline no longer may be good enough. Also, people whose jobs no longer correlate with a need for clearance should be forced to relinquish it.
Officials who leave the government with a level of clearance take their access with them. Often, there are good reasons for this. Because of their experience, these people may be called upon to consult with current military or intelligence officials on matters of national security.
For others, however, clearance becomes little more than a resume builder as they seek jobs as consultants or lobbyists.
This security clearance glut and the president’s decision to revoke the statuses of certain people are related in one sense: Both seem to miss what ought to be the overriding goal in issuing and revoking access — national security considerations.
Regardless what special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s investigation may uncover regarding collusion, intelligence agencies are united in warning that outside influences are trying to affect the 2018 election and manipulate public opinion.
It follows, then, that high-level secrets are at a premium. Clearance should be reserved to trusted people on a need-to-know basis and extended to former employees only in accordance with how their expertise could help current officials make informed choices.
Egos, partisan bickering and resumes should not be considerations.