Free Speech in Peril as Hero John Brennan Loses Security Clearance
After leaking for a while, most boils dry up and go away. Not John Brennan.
After President Donald Trump revoked his security clearance, John Brennan arose as a Hero of Free Speech. On Twitter he announced in terms designed to stir the corpses of the Founding Fathers “This action is part of a broader effort by Mr. Trump to suppress freedom of speech. My principles are worth far more than clearances. I will not relent.” Twelve former senior intelligence officials agreed, calling Trump’s revocation “an attempt to stifle free speech.”
No less than Ben Wizner, a director at the ACLU, stated “The First Amendment does not permit the president to revoke security clearances to punish his critics.” Republican Bob Corker, the retiring Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair said “It just feels like sort of a… banana republic kind of thing.” Admiral William McRaven, former SEAL and bin Laden killing superhero said of Trump’s revocation “Through your actions, you have embarrassed us in the eyes of our children.”
Relax. The only danger here is to John Brennan’s credibility as a #McResistance-Pop Idol.
Over five million Americans hold a security clearance. When a cleared person honorably leaves government, they usually retain that status. Ostensibly to allow them to be available to help out their successors, in fact most people depart with clearances as part of a gravy train. High level clearances take time and cost a lot of money to obtain. Retired, cleared, federal employees can slide into a range of lucrative contractor jobs. Others use their clearances to garner information from old colleagues and put that to vaguely legal use at think tanks, universities, and as media analysts.
Now that’s not to say once out of government a former employee can run around openly sharing secrets. What officials can do, and Brennan is pack leader, is become a “source” for journalists, an unpaid position albeit one of extraordinary political power. Next is to become a paid commentator, as Brennan also has done, where he can imply and allude to classified information to bolster his credibility. If you just could see what I can see, the line goes, and the audience fills in the blanks…
But that is nothing particularly unique to Brennan. To fully understand the real impact of his losing his security clearance one has to understand the role Brennan plays in the destroy Trump ecosystem.
If Special Counsel Robert Mueller is the guy at the table who chooses his words carefully even while not saying much, Brennan is the Drunk Uncle, blurting out crazy stuff that would be embarrassing except you want so desperately to believe him. Mueller has, to the anti-Trump family, been a real disappointment. Already into his second year of an investigation that seems to have no end in sight, Mueller is off somewhere mopping up Paul Manafort’s financial naughtiness from a decade ago, which doesn’t appear to have anything to do with “collusion.” Unless he’s planning to drop the Bomb just ahead of the midterms and ignite a full-on war over interference in the American political process, Mueller is pretty much on ice until, if the Democrats improbably score a lot of new seats in November, the end of the year.
Not Uncle John. Within hours of losing his clearance and ostensibly some of his free speech rights, Brennan appeared in the New York Times announcing “Trump’s claims of no collusion are, in a word, hogwash.” And about that security clearance? Brennan plays with us, stating “While I had deep insight into Russian activities during the 2016 election, I now am aware — thanks to the reporting of an open and free press — of many more of the highly suspicious dalliances of some American citizens with people affiliated with the Russian intelligence services.”
Bang! Brennan mentions his “deep insight” from 2016, implying classified stuff, then he saves himself from an Espionage Act charge by saying it’s really all from just reading the news. The does-he-or-doesn’t-he game adds shady credibility as Brennan spews up factless “opinions.” Brennan, with his access to tippy top secret stuff, would know, even if he couldn’t tell us just now, right? He might as well be peddling a revised version of 2002’s WMD tall tale.
Of course the punch line is if there was anything to really know, Mueller and all of the CIA already also would know, and maybe just haven’t gotten around to acting on it in the last couple of years. So how do you keep a politically useful story alive in the absence of conclusive evidence? John Brennan. The ever-pliant media has been quick to pick up on Brennan’s value. The Washington Post reminds Brennan absolutely knows the truth — “Trump was frightened — and remains so to this day — about just how much Brennan knows about his secrets. And by that, I don’t just mean his dealings with Russian oligarchs and presidents but the way he moved through a world of fixers, flatterers and money launderers. What does Brennan know? What did he learn from the CIA’s deep assets in Moscow?”
And that’s why Brennan wants his security clearance, and the media wants him to have it. He wants the flexibility to leak bits of real secrets to the press, while overtly hinting to the public he knows the whole story, sealing the deal with a wink. Mueller is the stern dad who may or may not come through. The rotating cast of jesters — Stormy Daniels, Michael Avenatti, Tom Arnold, Omarosa — enliven the story with cheap entertainment. Brennan is the big voice who coughs up Trump attacks for the media’s Scooby treats, driving the narrative. Brennan as a true Deep State actor implies proof without ever producing proof. Spewing capital charges without evidence, hoping the accusations alone do damage is pure McCarthyism and Brennan has learned that lesson even if we, and the media, have not.
Brennan needed that clearance as a hedge against sounding like just another old man shouting at Trump in stream-of-consciousness rants on Twitter. The media needed him to have it so he appeared credible enough for the front pages. Implied access to the real classified story is the only thing that separated Brennan from every other Russiagate conspiracy monger cluttering up social media.
Is it all political? Sure. But what was the point of Brennan, or other Obama-era officials unlikely to be consulted by the Trump administration, having clearances that outlived their government tenure anyway?
Brennan monetized his security clearance to bolster his “commentary” with the tang of inside knowledge. There is no government interest in that, and the government has no place allowing Brennan to hold a clearance for his own profit. Shutting him down preserves the point of issuing anyone a clearance, granting them access to America’s secrets so that they can do Uncle Sam’s bidding. A clearance isn’t a gift, it’s a tool issued by the government to allow employees to get work done. Brennan is working now only for himself, and deserved to lose his clearance.
Peter Van Buren, a 24 year State Department veteran, is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People and Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan. He is permanently banned from Twitter.