National Security

Rand Paul Encourages Trump to Attack Security Clearances of Government Critics

This will have potentially serious consequences for those investigating election meddling.


Donald Trump
Sipa USA/Newscom

After a suggestion from Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), the White House is considering possibly revoking the security clearances of some big name officials who have been critical of President Donald Trump.

Among the names that have been floated are former CIA directors John Brennan and Michael Hayden, former National Security Adviser Susan Rice, former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, fired FBI Director James Comey, and fired former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe. Those last two no longer have national security clearances anyway, so there's been some mocking of the White House for floating those names without even checking.

No former federal official has a right to a security clearance, and the president has a significant amount of leeway to operate here. Historically, though, security clearances are revoked for misconduct, not for speech critical of an administration. But accusations of political motivations are not unheard of, and you can see some examples from previous administrations. Here's a case from President Barack Obama's State Department.

Currently, there are more than 4 million people with security clearances of various levels. The New York Times notes that the maintenance of these security clearances serves a couple of functions. First, it allows the federal government to bring in former staff to consult and advise, which happens fairly frequently. Second, the access provided by the security clearance has market value. It translates into job opportunities in the private sector with consultants and lobbyists who want to influence government policy.

It's that second part that Trump and Paul seem to be targeting. Paul says that government officials shouldn't be using their security clearances to leverage speaking fees or cable appearances.

But why not? I mean, if the market places value in these prior relationships, what exactly is the ethical problem here if the private sector is willing to pay for these ties? But let's say there is an ethical problem. Why is this push only targeting Trump critics? If this is profiteering off of political access, shouldn't it be targeting a much wider swathe of people?

There's potentially a case that, yes, too many people maintain these security clearances and it fosters a marketplace in Washington, D.C., that revolves around the capacity to influence government spending and regulations. That's the whole "swamp" that Trump and his supporters go on about. Tackling this component of the swamp would involve reducing the size and scope of our government's defense and national security apparatus, which is pretty much the opposite of what Trump is doing. Trump loves the part of the swamp where all the defense contractors live.

This proposal does not in any meaningful way tackle the larger issue of the revolving door between government employees and private lobbying and consulting firms. It is instead an extremely transparent way for the administration to attempt to punish critics with ties to the government.

And to be clear here, this group the White House is targeting will do just fine. They're powerful and known enough and have enough experience to not need their security clearances. Brennan and Hayden both said that this wouldn't affect them in any way. And nothing short of a meteor strike can puncture Comey's overinflated sense of self-regard.

It's what happens downstream we need to pay attention to. What does this threat mean for those in the FBI responsible for investigating the role Russia played in meddling with the 2016 election? What does this mean for whistleblowers or anybody connected to the government who may attempt to warn the public of misconduct? Because this is not an effort to "drain the swamp" in any real way, it's really threatening that anybody who puts out information critical of the president could lose their security clearance and thereby lose job prospects. This isn't about stopping the revolving door between government and private lobbying; it's the White House deciding who gets to spin through that door based on how they treat the president.

That's pretty nasty, and if this happens, there will be further consequences. Patrick Eddington, a policy analyst at the Cato Institute, is, like myself, no fan of men like Clapper, Brennan, and Hayden. These are men with lengthy histories supporting violations of Americans' civil liberties in the name of national security. But over at Just Security, Eddington sees the long game if Trump goes forward with this proposal:

The real losers in this are the professional civil servants elsewhere in America's vast national security bureaucracy, especially anybody working at the Justice Department. Trump's real target is the FBI agent in his mid-40s, with two kids on their way to college and a mortgage to pay, who happens to be working on the Russia investigation. Or, it could be his counterpart, a federal prosecutor who's in the middle of her career and helping to guide the investigation. Trump's crude message to the bureaucracy is clear: Do anything to embarrass or implicate me in a crime, and I'll take away your meal ticket: Your security clearance.

It's a viable threat. There's no statute, much less a constitutional provision, that prevents Trump from revoking any executive branch employee's security clearance—for any reason or no reason. And without a valid security clearance, you can't hold a job as an FBI agent, FBI intelligence analyst, or attorney in the Justice Department—because those jobs require agents and lawyers to have access to sometimes highly classified information on potential suspects, particularly but not exclusively foreign national suspects. Like known Russian intelligence operatives.

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said today he thought Trump was just "trolling people" with this proposal. But is he trolling people like Clapper and Hayden or is he trolling the sort of FBI agents that Eddington mentions?