After President Donald Trump revoked his security clearance, John Brennan arose as a Hero of Free Speech. On Twitter, he announced in terms that reanimated the Founding Fathers and marched them down Constitution Avenue: “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 security clearances. When a cleared person honorably leaves government, he usually retains his status. Ostensibly this is to allow him to help out his successors, yet most people use their clearances to hop on the 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. They can also use their clearances to garner information from old colleagues and put it to vaguely legal use at think tanks, universities, and as media analysts.
That’s not to say that once out of government a former employee can run around openly sharing secrets. What officials can do, and Brennan is pack leader, is become “sources” for journalists, unpaid positions albeit ones of extraordinary political power. Next up 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 could only see what I see,” the line goes, and the audience fills in the blanks.
None of this is particularly unique to Brennan though. To fully understand the real impact of his losing his security clearance, one has to grasp the role he plays in the “Destroy Trump” ecosystem.
If Special Counsel Robert Mueller is the guy at the table who chooses his words carefully, Brennan is the drunk uncle, blurting out crazy stuff that would be embarrassing except you so desperately want to believe him. To the anti-Trump family, Mueller has been a real disappointment. Already into his second year of an investigation that seems to have no end in sight, he’s off 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 a 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 saves himself from an Espionage Act charge by saying it’s really all just from reading the news. The does-he-or-doesn’t-he game adds shady credibility as he spews up fact-less 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 that, if there was anything to really know, Mueller and all of the CIA already would know, and maybe just haven’t gotten around to acting on it over 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 his value. The Washington Post‘s David Ignatius reminds us that 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?”
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 that 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, driving the narrative. As a true Deep State actor, he 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 conspiracymonger 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 tenures anyway?
Brennan monetized his security clearance to flavor 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 entire point of issuing a clearance, which is so the grantee can do Uncle Sam’s bidding. A clearance isn’t a gift; it’s a tool issued by the government so employees can get work done. Brennan is working now only for himself. He 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.