What’s really lost with Brennan losing clearance

The contretemps and public mudslinging match between President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump takes shot at new GOP candidate in Ohio over Cleveland nickname GOP political operatives indicted over illegal campaign contribution from Russian national in 2016 On The Money — Dems dare GOP to vote for shutdown, default MORE and former CIA Director John BrennanJohn Owen BrennanClinton lawyer's indictment reveals 'bag of tricks' Still in the game: Will Durham's report throw a slow curveball at key political players? UFOs are an intriguing science problem; Congress must act accordingly MORE spiked Wednesday when the White House announced that the chief executive had stripped the career intelligence officer of his security clearances. While the president has this prerogative, it marks the first time that a former head of one of our intelligence agencies has had his clearances pulled for essentially political reasons. Previously, former CIA directors John Deutch and David Petraeus both had their clearances revoked because of serious security lapses.

But why do former directors retain their security clearances in the first place? Yes, it is a courtesy, but there are some practical considerations as well. Many erstwhile senior officials sit on government advisory boards, assist with policy, operational or technical reviews, and act as informal advisers to their successors.


Want to know how your predecessor dealt with a particularly prickly foreign official? Ask them. Dealing with a crisis that is an analog to current events and wish to know how a previous administration handled the issues? Call someone who was there, who still retains clearances, and while preserving some details under the “need to know” principle, have a conversation with an experienced hand who has the wisdom of hindsight and distance from the surrounding political noise.


Although not all former directors have kept their counsel on the political issues of the day, John Brennan exercised his First Amendment rights more than most. To state that he has not held back on his criticism of the president and of some individuals associated with his presidential campaign, especially when it comes to how they dealt with Russia, is an understatement. No one has ever accused Brennan of withholding deeply held beliefs and opinions. (Note: John Brennan and I entered on duty with the CIA in the same training class.) He possesses a superb intellect, was one of our nation’s leading analysts, and earned the trust of a host of senior intelligence and policy officials, to include former President Obama.  

His statements and opinions on Russian attempts to affect our elections and even our polity, I am sure, have been subjected to deep introspection and contemplation. That is who he is.

But that does not mean his comments have been without concomitant political implications.  That he and former Director of National Intelligence James ClapperJames Robert ClapperAfghanistan disaster puts intelligence under scrutiny Domestic security is in disarray: We need a manager, now more than ever Will Biden provide strategic clarity or further ambiguity on Taiwan? MORE have been so vocal, on the Russian matter, in particular, has divided opinion among some former senior intelligence officials on what the “correct role” of a former director should be and whether Brennan’s comments have contributed to the president’s often-critical attitude toward the entire intelligence community.  

One issue that definitely came into play was the medium in which Brennan’s comments were made. An inveterate consumer of television news, President Trump faced a former director appearing as a talking head on major broadcast and cable news networks. Who cares what is said in the genteel dining rooms of Georgetown, or behind the quiet facades of Washington’s clubs? Comments made at a policy forum with a bunch of eggheads and former policy wonks in attendance? No one cares. But on CNN …

The practical effect of Brennan having his clearances stripped is little to nothing. The political and policy implications of a director being viewed as a pariah by a sitting administration, instead of an eminence grise, however, will play out for years.

Mark S. Sparkman is a 30-year veteran of the CIA, including as an operations officer, a member of the Senior Intelligence Service and former Chief of Station. He is the chief intelligence officer for Veretus Group, an investigations and strategic intelligence firm in Washington, D.C.