Striking at critics, Trump threatens former officials’ security clearances

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The White House on Monday threatened to strip six former U.S. intelligence and law enforcement officials, including Obama-era CIA director John Brennan, of their security clearances as President Donald Trump considers striking back at critics of his summit meeting last week with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The threat against Brennan and former senior U.S. officials James Comey, James Clapper, Michael Hayden, Susan Rice and Andrew McCabe represented an extraordinary politicization of the U.S. government’s security clearance process.

White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said Trump is “exploring the mechanisms” to remove the security clearances. Sanders said the officials have “politicized and in some cases monetized their public service and security clearances, making baseless accusations of improper contact with Russia or being influenced by Russia.”

After Trump gave credence following his summit in Helsinki to Putin’s denials about Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. election despite findings by the American intelligence community, Brennan called Trump’s remarks “nothing short of treasonous.” In his July 16 Twitter post, Brennan added, “Not only were Trump’s comments imbecilic, he is wholly in the pocket of Putin.”

Trump fired Comey as FBI director last year and he has become a prominent critic, calling Trump “morally unfit to be president.” Clapper, who stepped down as director of national intelligence before Trump took office last year, has accused the president of placing American democratic institutions “under assault.”

Hayden is a former director of the CIA and National Security Agency. Rice was former President Barack Obama’s national security adviser. McCabe, who as the former No. 2 FBI official was involved in the agency’s investigation of Russia’s role in the 2016 U.S. election, was fired by Attorney General Jeff Sessions in March.

Many former U.S. officials retain their security clearances after they leave government service because they continue to advise their former agencies or because it is a condition of employment as government contractors or consultants. Stripping the clearances also represents a public rebuke of the officials and severs a connection with the intelligence community.

Sanders made reference to Brennan’s treason comment in explaining Trump’s threat toward the security clearances.

“Accusing the president of the United States of treasonous activity when you have the highest level of security clearance, when you’re the person that holds the nation’s deepest, most sacred secrets at your hands and you go out and you make false accusations against the president of the United States, he (the president) thinks that is something to be very concerned with,” Sanders said.

Asked if Trump was punishing the former officials because of their criticism, Sanders said, “No, I think you are creating your own story there.”

Former CIA Director John Brennan arrives for a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing evaluating the intelligence community assessment on “Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections” on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., May 16, 2018. REUTERS/Leah Millis

Trump came under a torrent of criticism after Helsinki, including from many lawmakers in his own Republican party. One of the few who publicly sided with him last week, Senator Rand Paul, said he met with Trump on Monday and asked him to revoke Brennan’s security clearance.


Clapper called the possibility of stripping the security clearances “just a very, very petty thing to do.”

“There is a formal process for doing this, but you know I guess legally the president has that prerogative,” Clapper said on CNN. “He can suspend or revoke clearances as he sees fit, and if he chooses to do it for political reasons, well I think that’s a terrible precedent. And it’s a very sad commentary. And it’s an abuse of the system.”

Hayden, a retired four-star Air Force general, said he was unbowed.

“I don’t go back for classified briefings,” he wrote on Twitter. “Won’t have any effect on what I say or write.”

A spokeswoman for McCabe, Melissa Schwartz, wrote on Twitter that his security clearance was deactivated when he was terminated, according to what they were told was FBI policy.

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

Both the CIA and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which oversees all U.S. intelligence agencies, said they had no comment on the White House threat.

Critics blasted the White House, with Democratic Senator Mazie Hirono writing on Twitter, “This is what totalitarianism looks like.”

Some Democrats criticized the proposal as a deflection tactic to change the conversation around what Trump may have agreed with Putin in their two-hour, one-on-one meeting.

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“This is absolute nonsense, and we shouldn’t fall for it,” said Rachel Cohen, spokeswoman for Senator Mark Warner, the senior Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee. “In this country, we don’t punish people for exercising their First Amendment rights,” referring to the constitutional provision protecting free speech.

Additional reporting by Doina Chiacu, Eric Beech and Warren Strobel; Writing by Lisa Lambert and Mary Milliken; Editing by Will Dunham

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