Here's what is really going on when President Donald Trump rescinds the security clearances of former senior intelligence and law enforcement officials. There's no need to delve into the legalities of whether the president has the authority to revoke clearances. No need to dive down the rabbit hole of whether anything former CIA director John Brennan or former director of national intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. said or wrote merits lifting of the clearances. It's not even worth spending much time analyzing whether canceling the security clearances of former senior intelligence officers will hurt the security of the United States.
This is all you really need to know: Trump is using presidential power to retaliate against the critics who have the best understanding of his relationship with Russia.
Just go down the list of now-former government officials who had unique insight into Trump's connections to Vladimir Putin's Russia: James B. Comey, former FBI director (fired); Andrew McCabe, former FBI deputy director (fired); Sally Yates, former acting attorney general (fired); Peter Strzok, senior FBI counterintelligence officer (fired). The people Trump is now threatening are the ones he can't fire, because they have already left their positions.
Silencing critics is one of Trump's strongest skill sets, and now that he has been in the presidency for a while, he understands how to use the bully pulpit in very literal terms. Revoking security clearances is code, a dog whistle, for all former and some current intelligence professionals: Criticize the president, especially about Russia, and bad things will happen to you.
I cannot say for sure how this is playing out inside the CIA, my old agency, or in other parts of the community. But I can say that the president's attack on the First Amendment rights of retired intelligence officers has a chilling effect. The threats can tamp down criticism. As McCabe found out, losing federal retirement benefits is no laughing matter. I personally have had to consider what I would do if this administration decided to go deeper into the ranks of retired officers and target people like me. As Clapper rhetorically asked during a recent CNN interview, where will it stop? Will former intelligence officers who speak out against the president and his policies see their health benefits and annuities canceled? It can be harder to be brave when one's own family might be put at risk.
While in the Clandestine Service, I served for more than 30 years in countries that were far from Jeffersonian democracies. Many of them tried open society on for size, but they struggled with corruption, freedom of speech and association, and the idea of a loyal opposition. In such countries, it was commonplace for recently elected heads of state to threaten the chiefs of their intelligence and law enforcement services, because those agencies often had the dirt on how the new president really got elected. Often, those elections were not free and fair. And often, those with the evidence to prove it ended up imprisoned or worse.
But I served in developing nations, not the United States, the world's oldest and (until recently, perhaps) most venerated democracy. To see America devolve into what Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) recently described as "a banana republic" is heart-wrenching. As one former CIA colleague asked me recently, "I feel utterly helpless. Is there anything we can do to right this wrong?"
Revoking security clearances will not affect the daily lives of people like Brennan. When senior intelligence and law enforcement officials leave service, they mostly move on, taking up positions in universities, accepting jobs in private firms and occasionally serving on ad hoc government commissions. Some simply retire and pursue private interests. Their clearances do not benefit them. They do not have access to classified information unless somebody from the intelligence community calls them in to ask for their views.
But something has made these men and women speak out. Something has caused them to do one of the most unnatural and uncomfortable things for an officer trained to keep secrets, trained to be discreet and, when necessary, clandestine: Address the American public directly via the press. Under normal circumstances, these people would not put themselves out there. Why take the chance? Why go against your training and the intelligence community's culture of discretion? The goal of intelligence officers is to avoid the media and any public attention, to operate in the shadows. This is almost a job requirement when you are an active officer. If what you are doing comes to light, in most cases, you have failed. Avoiding public attention used to be de rigueur for retirees, too, because even when an intelligence officer leaves service, we are still bound by the oath of secrecy we took when we first entered duty. Classified information is classified, and sources and methods require protection, even after an officer has retired or moved on to another job.
So why would anyone trained in such a fashion speak up? Only extraordinary circumstances would justify it. What are those circumstances today? Mostly, it's Russia, and Trump's connection to that country and its leader, Putin.
In the wake of the news conference in Helsinki, when the American president seemed to side with the authoritarian Putin and called the idea of turning over American citizens to Russia for questioning "a great offer," I tweeted that I was sickened. I cannot formally speak for my former colleagues, but I would wager that many felt the same way. And now, more and more former U.S. government employees are publicly criticizing the president's politically motivated revocation of Brennan's clearances. This is not the "deep state" rising up, but rather a commonsense, apolitical cry of foul.
Of course, many Americans are unhappy with our current president. He is a serial liar. He has debased the national dialogue with his gross inanities, especially in his late-night/early-morning tweets. Undoubtedly, he is an immoral actor, self-interested and self-important. And there can be little doubt that all of us will be paying for many of his policies for years to come. Already, we are weakened in the eyes of our allies. At home, race relations are more strained than they have been in decades.
But as a former intelligence officer, I know these are not the prime reasons my former colleagues are speaking out against Trump.
Americans can legitimately disagree with a president’s policies. We can reasonably criticize a president’s morals and actions. But it’s hard to find an argument beyond bizarre conspiracy theories (of the sort developed by people who believe in the deep state and think child sex rings are being run in the basement of D.C. pizza joints) that can reasonably justify the contacts and behaviors of Trump and his team with Russia. As Brennan wrote recently in The New York Times, it is no longer a question of whether the Trump team colluded with Russia. It is simply a question of whether the collusion — or contact, or cooperation, or whatever you want to call it — rises to the level of criminal conspiracy.
This is why an unprecedented number of former intelligence and law enforcement officers — including myself — are ignoring the discomfort of breaking with our culture and tradition of silence by speaking out. For those who claim we are “monetizing” or enjoying significant remuneration for our work, I’d be happy to release my tax returns — as soon as our commander in chief does. Now is not the time to remain silent. Even when faced with threats from the White House.
These are especially dangerous times. The facts we can see already are grounds for concern. The former intelligence and counterintelligence officials with access to the most sensitive intelligence on Russia seem to be the most worried of all. What don't we know yet that's making them speak up? And what don't we know yet that's making Trump so furious at them?
Steven Hall retired from the CIA in 2015 after 30 years of running and managing Russian operations.