President Donald Trump on Wednesday revoked the security clearance of former CIA Director John Brennan, who has become a harsh critic of the president, and appeared to be targeting others who have disagreed with the administration.
“Mr. Brennan’s lying and recent conduct characterized by increasingly frenzied commentary is wholly inconsistent with access to the nation’s most closely held secrets and facilities, the very aim of our adversaries which is to sow division and chaos,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said, reading a statement from Trump while briefing reporters on Wednesday.
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“Mr. Brennan has recently leveraged his status as a former high-ranking official with access to highly sensitive information to make a series of unfounded and outrageous allegations — wild outbursts on the internet and television — about this Administration,“ the president‘s statement continued.
In addition, Sanders said, the administration is evaluating clearances for former FBI Director James Comey, former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, former National Security Agency Director Michael Hayden, former national security adviser Susan Rice, former FBI attorney Lisa Page, former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, former FBI counterintelligence agent Peter Strzok, former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, whose security clearance was deactivated after he was fired earlier this year, and Bruce Ohr, who is still in the Justice Department although he was demoted from associate deputy attorney general.
“More broadly, the issue of Mr. Brennan’s security clearance raises larger questions about the practice of former officials maintaining access to our nation’s most sensitive secrets long after their time in government has ended,” Sanders said.
Brennan later responded on Twitter.
“This action is part of a broader effort by Mr. Trump to suppress freedom of speech & punish critics,” he wrote. “It should gravely worry all Americans, including intelligence professionals, about the cost of speaking out. My principles are worth far more than clearances. I will not relent,” he wrote.
In a subsequent phone interview on MSNBC, Brennan added that if the president believed that the action would lead the former CIA director “to just go away and be quiet, he is very badly mistaken.“
“I‘ve seen this type of behavior and actions on the part of foreign tyrants and despots and autocrats during my CIA and national security career,” he said. “I never thought I would see it here in the United States. And so I do believe that all Americans really need to take stock of what is happening right now in our government, and how abnormal and how irresponsible and how dangerous these actions are.“
Brennan also said he was not informed by the government that his security clearance was revoked, but instead learned it from a friend who called when Sanders was delivering the president’s statement.
The White House last month announced that it was looking into revoking security clearances for the individuals Sanders listed, with the exception of Yates, Strzok, Page and Ohr, whose names were added on Wednesday.
Trump has over the past couple of days dug into Strzok, who was fired from the FBI on Friday, and Ohr.
Ohr, a senior Justice Department official, has come under scrutiny after it was revealed he had contact during the 2016 election cycle with Fusion GPS founder Glenn Simpson and former British spy Christopher Steele, who compiled a dossier that described a complex conspiracy of Trump and his campaign working with the Kremlin to influence the outcome of the presidential election. Trump has denied the dossier‘s findings. Ohr’s wife, Nellie, also worked for Fusion GPS during the 2016 election.
The Justice Department declined to comment on Ohr’s security clearance.
“Security clearances for those who still have them may be revoked, and those who have already lost their security clearance may not be able to have it reinstated,” Sanders said.
Clapper on Wednesday said during an interview with CNN that he had not had any access to current intelligence since he resigned in January 2017.
The former intelligence chief has been a harsh critic of Trump and has feuded with the president, who has characterized the FBI’s use of an informant as the Justice Department‘s spying on his presidential campaign. Clapper, however, has countered that Russian efforts were the subject of intelligence operations, not Trump‘s campaign.
Clapper said that losing his clearance wouldn’t have any “ immediate substantive impact“ on him, and that he would continue to speak out against the president.
“Will the republic stand or fall on whether John retains his access to classified information, or mine or any others that were named? Of course not,“ he said. “The larger issue here, to me, throughout has been infringement on First Amendment rights. And I think people ought to think seriously about that.“
Comey last month said he no longer had a security clearance, and Hayden also said on Twitter that he did not go back for classified briefings but would occasionally be asked to “offer a view on something.”
Comey, who was fired last year, documented a conversation with Trump in which he says the president asked him to to let go of an FBI investigation into former Trump campaign adviser Michael Flynn, who also served briefly as the president’s national security adviser. Since the release of Comey‘s memo, special counsel Robert Mueller has broadened his Russia investigation to include whether Trump tried to obstruct justice. Trump has long called the Mueller inquiry a “witch hunt.“
Susan Gordon, principal deputy director of national intelligence, told POLITICO on Wednesday that she didn’t know whether the White House consulted National Intelligence Director Dan Coats before it announced the decision to revoke Brennan’s clearance.
“But it is a presidential decision,” she said. “That authority is his; he can make the decisions. I don’t know whether we were consulted or not, but whether we were or not, it’s an executive decision for him to make.”
She pointed out that security clearances have traditionally been important tools for the U.S. intelligence community, allowing agencies to rely the experiences of former department chiefs.
“There’s a whole range of people that we rely on, including our formers who have those clearances to help us be better at what we do and know,” she said on the sidelines of a Defense Intelligence Agency conference in Omaha, Nebraska.
Gordon said she didn’t have any indication whether the removal of Brennan’s clearances was part of a “larger trend.”
She stressed, however, that former agency leaders — including those working for private companies and those still in government — remain important parts of the intelligence community. And, she said, former officials with clearances should maintain certain standards to keep those clearances.
“Yes, that’s important as well,” she said.
Conservatives have over the past couple of weeks pushed for Brennan’s security to be removed.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in June said he spoke to the president about that very issue, and Fox News host Tucker Carlson also called for Brennan’s clearance to be removed after he reported he still had it.
On Wednesday, the Senate majority whip, John Cornyn (R-Texas), who is on the Intelligence Committee, said it was “entirely appropriate” for Trump to take action against Brennan.
But Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the retiring chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said: “Without having some kind of tangible reasons for doing so, which there may be that I’m not aware of, I don’t like it at all. It just feels like sort of a … banana republic kind of thing,”
Brennan, in the MSNBC interview on Wednesday, said he believed that Trump was concerned about the criticism Brennan has been voicing publicly and was trying to diminish his integrity.
“I must tell you that Mr. Trump‘s dishonesty, his lack of integrity, his nastiness, mean-spiritedness, the types of things that he has just tweeted out the past 72 hours, the terms that he uses, this is not what I think of an American president, nor of America,“ Brennan said. “We’re better than this. We have to be better than this. We have been a shining example to the world, and Mr. Trump is letting this country down.“
In addition, Brennan criticized Trump‘s attacks on Mueller and his investigation. He added that although he did not know any details from the inquiry, he believed that the president’s recent attacks were a result of the “closer magnification of some of the things that those around him have been involved in“ through the probe.
“I know some things that the Russians were involved in, but I certainly don‘t know all the things that Mr. Trump has been involved in over the years,“ he said. “I do not pretend to have that knowledge. He is the one. But clearly his actions are those of somebody who is seeking to prevent the full light of day being shone upon his past.“
Mueller‘s investigation should have a conclusion, Brennan said, and added that the American public should accept the findings no matter what.
“I think at the end of the day we all should accept the findings of that investigative team,“ he said. “And if they exonerate everybody, including Mr. Trump, from any wrongdoing whatsoever, we should accept that, because that is what the rule of law demands and what our system of justice requires.“
John McLaughlin, a former acting director of the CIA, who was not listed as having his clearance under review but has criticized the president’s policies in the past, said on Wednesday that he thought the choice to revoke the clearance was to “silence critics.“
“This really has the feel of someone simply trying to do two things: silence critics and also distract from another damaging political event that‘s going on with Omarosa,“ he said during a phone interview on MSNBC, referring to former presidential adviser Omarosa Manigault Newman, whose new book includes scathing criticism of Trump and his administration.
Martin Matishak and Burgess Everett contributed to this report.