A baker's dozen of former CIA directors condemned President Trump for stripping former CIA Director John Brennan of his security in what they referred to as a political move that could compromise U.S. national security.
"We have never before seen the approval or removal of security clearances used as a political tool, as was done in this case,” the security officials said in a joint statement issued late Thursday. “Beyond that, this action is quite clearly a signal to other former and current officials.”
Trump revoked Brennan's clearance the day before, citing "the risks posed by his erratic conduct and behavior" and claiming it was his responsibility under the Constitution “to protect the nation's classified information." But in an interview shortly after with the Wall Street Journal, Trump maintained he took action against Brennan for his role in Special Counsel Robert Mueller's Russia probe.
"I call it the rigged witch hunt,” Trump told the Journal, referring to the investigation as a sham. "And these people led it!"
The White House has said the president is mulling revoking security clearance for others, such as Gen. Michael Hayden, who formerly headed both the CIA and the NSA; former Justice Department Acting Director Sally Yates, who was part of the contingent that warned Trump of Russia's activities and potential for compromise of former National Security Adviser Gen. Michael Flynn shortly before he assumed office; and former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, a frequent critic of Trump's handling of Russia's meddling and his cozy relationship with Russia President Vladimir Putin.
The 13 former security officials maintained that revoking Brennan's clearance and “the threats of similar action against other former officials has nothing to do with who should and should not hold security clearances – and everything to do with an attempt to stifle free speech."
Former officials often retain their security clearances even after leaving their posts so they can lend expertise and knowledge to their successors or discuss matters of national security with members of Congress. Brennan, who was appointed by President Barack Obama and stayed on to lead the CIA until Trump could select another director, said he used his clearance primarily to look over his notes in preparation to testify before Congress on matters of national security.
Brennan had harsh words for the president. “This action is part of a broader effort by Mr. Trump to suppress freedom of speech & punish critics,” he tweeted. “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.”
McFaul voiced his support for Brennan, tweeting that he had “never met anyone more dedicated to defending our national security than John. He will now be just as vigorous & vigilant in defending American values, including free speech, without a sec clearance.”
Trump has grown increasingly frustrated with members of the intelligence community, who have widely agreed that Russia interfered in the U.S. presidential election to influence it in his favor, and have been critical of the president's characterization of Mueller's probe as a “witch hunt.” It is not the first time Trump vented his frustration by taking action against an intelligence or law enforcement official associated with the investigation. The president initially said he fired former FBI Director James Comey for his mishandling of the Hillary Clinton email probe, but then told CNN that he canned Comey because of the Russian probe he was leading at that time.
Comey's firing prompted FBI Deputy Director Rod Rosenstein to appoint Mueller to lead the investigation.