John Brennan had a tough time when he took his first CIA lie-detector test in 1980. He was asked a standard question as to whether he had ever belonged to an organisation dedicated to the overthrow of the United States government. Not quite, but almost: just four years earlier Brennan, then a student at Fordham University, had cast his first vote for president for the candidate of the Communist Party USA. Brennan had never been a party member—just a Communist voter.
The CIA let him in. A little more than thirty years later, he was appointed by Barack Obama to lead the agency. But now, ex-CIA director Brennan is questioning the patriotism of Obama’s successor, accusing the president of being an agent of Moscow. “Donald Trump’s press conference performance in Helsinki rises to & exceeds the threshold of ‘high crimes & misdemeanors,’ Brennan wrote on Twitter. “It was nothing short of treasonous.”
Donald Trump’s press conference performance in Helsinki rises to & exceeds the threshold of “high crimes & misdemeanors.” It was nothing short of treasonous. Not only were Trump’s comments imbecilic, he is wholly in the pocket of Putin. Republican Patriots: Where are you???
— John O. Brennan (@JohnBrennan) July 16, 2018
Comrade Brennan would know, right? But no—a dumb college kid’s vote for the CPUSA is no more treasonous than a president who takes a less adversarial approach to Russia than Democrats demand. Brennan has evidently never had a good grasp of the U.S. Constitution, whether as a Communist-voting student or the nation’s top spy. That he now turns policy disagreements and personal disgust into “nothing short” of treason is par for the course.
Sen. Rand Paul, the Republican who votes against Trump more often than any other in the U.S. Senate, has called on the president to strip Brennan of his inactive security clearance. Trump is considering doing just that. He’s contemplating depriving Michael Hayden, Susan E. Rice, James R. Clapper Jr., and other former intelligence officials who have been critical of him of their clearances as well. Democrats claim that this is intimidation, though the question on many observers’ minds is: why do so many ex-officials have these clearances in the first place?
The answer to that question was provided by what is now the most anti-Trump newspaper in the land, the Washington Post, back during the Obama administration. A series of articles collectively published as “Top Secret America” in 2010 explained the lucrative market in consulting and government contracting for holders of clearances. The title of the article that provided the details—“A hidden world, growing beyond control”—still stands as an apt description of what Trump supporters call the Deep State. It is an economy and power structure unto itself, and wields considerable authority in elite politics.
Since 2016, Trump has defied the elite political consensus time and again, and so figures like Brennan are left to vent their frustration on Twitter. They are losing prestige, and with it, power. The risk to their security clearances is one more symbol of that. (Brennan says his clearance has not been needed for any of the work he’s done since leaving government. But even if it’s not strictly necessary, it’s a passkey that employers and clients treat as valuable in its own right. Brennan doesn’t have to use it to benefit from having it.)
It would be mighty strange if an unelected former government salaryman like Brennan were entitled to the special aura of authority granted by a security clearance, an authority he employs to attack the policies of a constitutionally elected president. As a private citizen, Brennan is free to say whatever he damn well pleases and to vote for whatever Communist runs against Trump in 2020. But he is not entitled, morally or legally, to a government privilege to bolster his public credibility. Brennan, by his own admission, is not using his clearance for government-related work. There is simply no public need for him to have it, and a good public reason for him not to have it. He is a private citizen, just as the intelligence officials who are still in government are public servants—not the public’s masters. Or the president’s. Whether his diplomacy is wise or foolish, Donald Trump is fighting a battle on behalf of democracy and constitutionalism by putting a figure like John Brennan back in his place. If Brennan doesn’t like it, he’ll just have to return to his old ways and try to overthrow the Constitution.