Trump Aims To Pull Clearances Of Ex-Officials Critical Of Him
NOEL KING, HOST:
In a lot of cases, people who work as national security and intelligence officials keep their security clearances even after the administrations they are serving have left office. The Trump administration may be looking to change that. During Monday's White House press briefing, spokesperson Sarah Sanders said some former officials should lose their security clearance. She read a list of names. It included former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and former CIA directors Michael Hayden and John Brennan. Now, one thing they all have in common is that all of these men have been critical of President Trump. Here's Sarah Sanders.
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SARAH SANDERS: Making baseless accusations of improper contact with Russia or being influenced by Russia against the president is extremely inappropriate. And the fact that people with security clearances are making these baseless charges provides inappropriate legitimacy to accusations with zero evidence.
KING: All right. Here with me now in studio is John Sipher. He's a former member of the CIA's Clandestine Service. He was with the agency for 28 years.
Good morning, sir.
JOHN SIPHER: Good morning. Thanks. Nice to be here.
KING: Nice to have you. Can the president do this? Can he just revoke people's security clearance?
SIPHER: Yeah. I think the president is the ultimate classifier for the government, so in principle, he does have Article 2 constitutional authority to do this if he wants to. However, I don't think any president has ever made individual clearance decisions in the past.
KING: If you have this clearance, what do you get? You've already left the administration, right? So what is the benefit of maintaining it?
SIPHER: Well, when you retire, your clearance becomes inactive. And if you have a clearance, it can be reactivated quickly - for example, if you're going to be on an advisory board or a commission or something like that. For example, former Deputy Director of CIA Michael Morell was on a commission looking at the NSA for President Obama. He needed access to classified material to do that. So these - having this security clearance doesn't mean that you have regular access to classified information. It means if the government needs you in some capacity that requires classified information, you can quickly come back and do that.
KING: So you make an interesting point. If the government needs you - which means some of the benefit of letting people keep their security clearance is the government's benefit - they can draw on the expertise of folks who've left.
SIPHER: Absolutely. All of the benefit is for the government. The government provides security clearances so that it can do its work. I think what President Trump is trying to do here is suggest to the public that somehow these people are benefiting from their security clearances, that their criticism is coming from their access to classified material. But just because they have standing clearances doesn't mean that they're regularly looking at classified material.
KING: Well, this is interesting. You talk about the question of benefiting - whether they're benefiting. A reporter yesterday asked Sarah Sanders, look; is this a political move? These guys have all been critical; now you're naming and shaming them. And Sarah Sanders said, in some cases, these people are using their security clearance there - to make money - you know, part of the famous revolving door in Washington. Does she have a point there, do you think?
SIPHER: Well, a lot of people - for example, when I retired, I could easily have kept my clearance and gone back to do contract work. So in that case, yes, I'd be making money, but I would be doing a job to make that money.
SIPHER: In these people's cases, usually, they're not doing work for the government to make money. I think what Mr. Trump is suggesting and Ms. Sanders is suggesting is that, somehow, since they're on CNN or these other television shows, that they're making money based on their security clearance. I think they're making money based on their experience working 40, 50 years for the government. But they don't use their access to classified material because if they did, then they would rightly lose their clearance because they're - you know, if I was blurted out classified information to you right now, I would therefore lose any access to classified material.
KING: We'd all have a pretty big problem, yeah. One of the men on the list, James Clapper, spoke about this on CNN. Here's part of what he had to say.
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JAMES CLAPPER: This is kind of a petty way of retribution, I suppose, for speaking out against the president.
KING: I wonder - do you think there is a chance that this could have a kind of chilling effect on people criticizing the president?
SIPHER: Yes. I - you know, Trump is revoking these clearances not because they did anything wrong or can't be trusted but because they disagree with him. He's trying to punish people who criticize him, right? So in a sense, this does send a signal, potentially, to people in the government that there's some sort of a loyalty test to having a security clearance. And I think that's probably more troubling here than actually what's happening to these individuals because these individuals will be fine without security clearances.
KING: I wonder, though, if we can defend the administration for a second by saying, look; yes, they've been critical; yes, this is unusual to suggest that their clearance might be revoked, but their criticism is also very unusual. It's very public. It's happening on Twitter. The word treason is being thrown around. I mean, is it possible here in 2018, we're just playing with a new set of rules, and the president has every right to do this?
SIPHER: Well, the president does have a right to do this. Whether it's wise or not is sort of the question here. And, in fact, I think when people like John Brennan and others use the word treason, in some ways, they're benefiting the president because in that way, they make themselves sort of handy straw men for the president to attack, to blame for his problems - you know, John Brennan represents the deep state. And Mr. Trump has tried to create this notion that the people in the government are working against his administration. It's not true, but it's helpful politically. So yes, the president can be frustrated that there's criticism against this, but if these people were using access to classified information to criticize the president, then they would have every right to lose their security clearances. But I think what the president's doing here sort of is on purpose confusing these things to benefit himself politically.
KING: If I can ask you to make a prediction very briefly, do you think the president will go ahead and do it?
SIPHER: Well, there are procedures and guidelines involved here that require different people to sign off. I mean, again, ultimately, he has the authority to do it, but there - but it probably is not just as easy as him saying it. So I suspect he will because it plays well for him politically. I don't think it will have any effect on these individuals and how much criticism they have of the president because their criticism is not based on their access to classified material.
KING: John Sipher is a former member of the CIA's Clandestine Service. Thank you, sir.
SIPHER: My pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.