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US intelligence veterans disturbed by security clearance politics

Kseniya Kirillova

Two striking events marked American politics last week; to be exact, in the national security arena: the dismissal of FBI Special Agent Peter Strzok, who had criticized Donald Trump in personal correspondence with his colleague and former mistress Lisa Page; and the withdrawal of former CIA Director John Brennan's security clearance. The second decision was made personally by Trump and the first by the FBI Deputy Director, but a number of US security experts call it also politically motivated.

A reminder: Strzok – who had worked on the team of the Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller and had investigated Hillary Clinton’s email servers – was removed from the investigation of Russian interference in the American elections in August 2017, when tens of thousands of text messages which he exchanged with Lisa Page in 2015-2016 were discovered. A month ago, Congress held hearings on this issue. Strzok himself insisted that his personal views did not affect his work. John Brennan, in turn, openly and sharply criticized some of Trump's actions, primarily his behavior toward Vladimir Putin, which, in the veteran's opinion, ran counter to the interests of American national security.

At the same time, a number of former FBI and CIA employees, as well as other veterans of the United States intelligence community see in these decisions a very disturbing sign of an attack on the main American freedoms.

«No US civil servant should ever be dismissed for his personal views unless it can be shown that they led him to act in ways inconsistent with his official responsibilities. If that principle is violated, as it appears to be in this case, the government will soon lose its authority among the population and thus its effectiveness», – said well-known American expert, ex-CIA analyst and special adviser to the US State Department on the Soviet Union, Paul Goble.

Another familiar American commentator, writer, former diplomat and intelligence analyst James Bruno agrees with him.

«The FBI's Office of Professional Responsibility recommended 60 days suspension and a demotion in rank for Mr. Strzok's poor conduct. But the FBI's leadership decided to fire him instead. This comes after earlier actions to remove and punish career officials in the FBI and Department of Justice under pressure from the White House. Trump's revocation of former CIA Director John Brennan's security clearance is unprecedented and clearly politically motivated.

I fear we are witnessing a return to McCarthyism in this country. Donald Trump and his supporters in Congress have shown they will seriously damage government agencies and weaken our national security in their efforts to shield the president from the investigation into conspiracy to collude with Russia, obstruction of justice and other crimes», – he stated.

Former Chief of the FBI Crisis Negotiation Unit Gary Noesner is more restrained in his assessments.

«I have no strong feelings about Strzok one way or the other, although his emails [sic] were certainly inappropriate. My concern is that his fate became tainted by the politics which were driven by Trump's personal involvement, which in my view is wrong and inappropriate as well», – the veteran noted.

Another retired senior ex-CIA and ex-FBI officer, who asked to remain anonymous, on the contrary, believes that Strzok's conduct could compromise the investigation, and so his dismissal was justified.

«Strzok was an experienced and senior officer who should have known not to express his personal opinions on his work phone. The standard is higher for the FBI and he should be accountable for his actions. He jeopardized a major investigation», – the expert believes.

Nevertheless, a number of analysts considers the dismissal of Strozk – especially in combination with the decision on John Brennan and Trump's threat to deny access to classified information to other former US intelligence agency heads –  a direct challenge to US democratic traditions.

This view, in particular, is shared by Glenn Carle, who served 23 years in the CIA and as Deputy National Intelligence Officer for Transnational Threats at the National Intelligence Council.

«Both the dismissal of Strzok and the revocation of clearances for John Brennan (a former colleague of mine) have national ramifications.  Each act pushes the United States closer to a totalitarian system of government and the loss of American democracy.  Each act is purely political and has no justification whatsoever.  The Brennan move may, in fact, be illegal, for one can only remove security clearances after a formal process of assessment and adjudication, which has nothing to do with the president at all.

The foundation of American democracy – of any democracy – is free speech. The First Amendment of the US Constitution is the primary guarantee of freedom and democracy. 240 years of American history, politics, and law have established that free speech protects “speech you hate,” not speech you like.  If political authorities can suppress opinions because they are critical or because they do not like the opinions expressed, democracy dies. America would then become a totalitarian China or a banana republic.

Strzok’s firing and the revocation of Brennan’s clearances are two more steps by Trump in establishing, literally, a dictatorship and in destroying American democracy.  These two acts themselves are impeachable offenses», – the CIA veteran said.

He was echoed by a former FBI Special Agent-in-Charge who served there for 31 years, Myron Fuller.

«Trump’s desperate acts to destroy those who dare to point out his criminal behavior only makes the charges of Obstruction and Conspiracy against him stronger. Trump is following the paths of Nixon with hush money and retributions, a sure path of collapse», – he cautions.

«There are two points. First, in this case, the revocation of clearances is being driven by political, not security considerations. Trump has set a very bad precedent, not by his actions but by his explanation for taking the action», – believes a former FBI Agent with 27 years of experience, Andrew Bringuel.

«It's pretty simple and straightforward that only people who hold jobs that require security clearance should have it. If your job doesn't require a clearance the clearance should be pulled. So, if Brennan or anyone else is not in a job where he needs a clearance then pull it, end of story.

The current system allows the president to pull an individual's security clearance, but to do so because Trump is personally offended by a legitimate investigation involving Russian meddling is troubling indeed. One need not look further than the firing of former FBI director James Comey. It's not a question of whether Trump did it, it's why he did it.

Secondly, the issue brings up a topic of who has to undergo a security background investigation in support of a security clearance. Security clearances are attached to the "job", not the "person", so if a person wants a particular job that would require access to classified information that person needs a clearance. Former FBI director Robert Mueller once said, "If security is an inconvenience, tough!"

So why is the president, vice president, Congress, and the Supreme Court justices are exempt from background investigations and security clearances? If their job requires them to have access to classified information they too should feel the inconvenience the SF-86 produces. Why should a person with access to the nuclear codes undergo less of a background investigation than an FBI Honors Intern? Congress needs to pass legislation that forces themselves and any candidate for the offices of President or Vice President to undergo a complete security background investigation, including a lifestyle polygraph as a requirement for the job. Ronald Reagan said it best, "Trust, but verify" and if anyone's trust needs to be verified it's politicians», – concluded the veteran.

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