When President Trump revoked the security clearance of John Brennan, the liberal commentariat went into full righteous indignation. James Clapper, whose own security clearance may be in jeopardy, claimed that it was an infringement on Brennan’s First Amendment rights to free speech. Foreign Policy Magazine editorialized that it “destroyed national security norms.” Slate said that it “petty” and “dangerous.” The New York Times’ own Editorial Board described it as an “act of spite.” Yet there is one essential point about security clearances that none of these sanctimonious bleatings ever mention, possibly because they don’t know it, but it’s basic. It’s the “need to know.”
Many years ago, when I was a young Naval Officer in the Pentagon, I received a Top Secret clearance, the highest of three levels of the three levels of security clearances. At that time, I was told that an official security clearance was only one of two requirements to see classified information. The second requirement was what is called the “need to know.” In other words, I couldn’t use my Top Secret clearance to see just any piece of Top Secret information. I had to have an official “need to know” information about a particular piece of classified information. The “need to know” had to be connected with my official government duties. As an example, even though a Naval officer, If I had no need to know the maximum underwater speed of a certain type of nuclear submarine, a detail that remains top secret to this day, I couldn’t learn it, irrespective of my Top Secret clearance. So the next time you read or hear something about Mr. Brennan’s loss of his security clearance, listen carefully to see if you see or hear the words “need to know.” If you don’t, the writer is probably less than fully informed on the subject.
When an individual with a security leaves government service, as Mr. Brennan did, and if he retains his security clearance, which is fairly common, at least for a while, what is that individual’s need to know? A former head of the CIA, for example, might be asked to provide advice on new information pertaining to a subject he worked on during his government service. He would therefore have a need to know in order to provide context to the new Administration. Now think about John Brennan. He has been more critical, even vitriolic, about President Trump and his new Administration than any former CIA head in history. Now, to me at least, that seems unprecedented. He even suggested that President Trump had committed high crimes and misdemeanors, the Constitutional threshold for impeachment. What’s the likelihood that the Trump Administration will be inviting John Brennan to weigh in on a security issue? About zero. Therefore, he should have no access to any classified information on the basis of having no need to know. Working as a media analyst doesn’t cut it. Working for a defense or intelligence contractor to the government might, but that has never been mentioned by Brennan or his supporters. Don’t be fooled.
Next, let’s turn our attention to the claim that revoking Brennan’s security clearance infringes on his First Amendment rights to free speech. This is absurd on its face. Just look at what Brennan has said about President Trump after losing his security clearance. His free speech rights are clearly unimpeded. But let’s go a little deeper. If somehow his loss of security clearance was preventing him from seeing some piece of classified information that he wanted to speak about … then he would have been planning to commit a crime by disclosing classified information. Why don’t journalists who repeat such drivel about loss of free speech rights examine their own logic for a change? Or, more properly, their lack of logic?
So what can we learn from this episode? Why not make the default condition that, upon leaving government service, everyone would lose their security clearances, unless they can show a “need to know” due to the nature of their post-government service? That would solve a lot of other potential problems in addition to Brennan’s.
(Colin A. Hanna is President of Let Freedom Ring, USA.)