22 August 2018

Losing It

David Edgerley Gates


Trump's recent revocation of former DCI John Brennan's security clearance has generated a lot of heat and not much light. Let's see if we can read the entrails.

To begin with, access to confidential information is authorized on a Need-to-Know basis. You need to know this stuff to do your job. Moving into the upper atmosphere, information gets classified at higher levels, Sensitive and Compartmentalized. In my own case, as an analyst working with intercepted military communications, my clearance level was Top Secret/Crypto [CODEWORD Material] Handle Via COMINT Channels Only. The primary purpose, here, was to protect sources and methods. As the intelligence was passed on to consumers, those specific sources and methods were edited out, and only referenced to indicate provenance and reliability - even then, in sanitized euphemisms.

At policy level, the upper reaches of the chain of command, the National Security Council, say, the inner circle, CIA and NSA, State, the Pentagon, these people are breathing thinner air. Compartmentalization isn't an issue, access is across the board. Still, the habit of secrecy, the gnostic power, that Special Knowledge, held in trust by the initiate, is a drug. It's the crystal meth of statecraft. Losing the privilege, going cold turkey, is being cast into the outer darkness, with weeping and gnashing of teeth.

I remember being processed out of Berlin. They terminated my clearance, and red-badged me. I was redundant. It was both exhilarating and depressing. Release is second cousin to exile. But at the same time, it was clearly explained that I was to take their secrets to the grave with me, and the alternative was Leavenworth. There was also a two-year travel restriction. I was prohibited from going to Eastern Europe, for example - which made perfect sense, since our resources targeted Group Soviet Forces and the Warsaw Pact. They might have liked to pick my brain.

More to the point, if you spend a significant period in your life locked into a mission, you can't shift gears as easily as you change your socks. We were on the edge of the Cold War. It's not an exaggeration to suggest we played some small part in preventing it from turning hot. And almost everybody I know from back then kept their hand in. How not? You read between the lines, you hear an echo where other people hear empty air. You miss the high.

It's long-standing convention, going back to Eisenhower, that senior figures keep their secure access through successive administrations. The tradition of the Wise Men, somehow above the fray. Think of Dean Acheson, or Clark Clifford, or James Baker. You can call on these guys in a crisis. And they, of course, are all too ready. What, you think Henry Kissinger's shy?

In the case of Brennan, specifically, I'm hearing that a fair number of people in the intelligence community, both former and currently serving, don't care for the guy. They regard him as self-serving, and his version of his own bio leaves out the unwary he's thrown under the bus. Be that as it may. It's all the more interesting, then, that seven former DCI's and six former Deputy Directors, along with two former Directors of National Intelligence, have put their names to a letter supporting Brennan and challenging Trump. Not challenging Trump's authority to refuse Brennan access to secure materials, but the grounds for it.

Brennan is clearly being punished for shooting his mouth off. He's made no secret of his disdain for Trump, and Trump has seemingly conflated Brennan's animosity with the Mueller investigation. (This is just one of those odd distortions that appear at random in the Trump alternate ecosystem.) What the signatories to the protest letter take issue with is the chilling effect. It's probably safe to say they don't all agree with Brennan, and if they do, they think it's better to keep it to themselves. Gen. Michael Hayden has not, he's been extremely critical of Trump, but Hayden has an honorable track record, in my opinion - a lot better than Brennan's. Bob Gates, Porter Goss, and Leon Panetta. They've kept their own counsel, and I think they must feel duty-bound to speak up. Tenet and Petraeus, on the other hand? Tenet went in the bag for WMD's. Petraeus, damn it, put Little Elvis at the wheel. 

It's naive, or willful ignorance, to think intelligence isn't politicized. We have only to go back as far as the late 1960's, when it was pretty widely known in certain closed circles that the field reporting out of Viet Nam was being massaged as it went up the food chain, to present an acceptable wisdom. But by and large, intelligence professionals try to present a realistic approximation of a shifting and ambiguous world. The run-up to Iraq is in fact a pretty good example. Feith and Wolfowitz tried to use their weasel shop at the Pentagon to discredit the CIA reporting, and Nigerian yellowcake made it into the State of the Union, but the Agency kept pushing the least dishonest assessments they could, even though Tenet was afraid he'd lose both the argument and the confidence of the only client who mattered. This is of course the actual bottom line. You want the president's ear, and his trust. If he stops listening, you've lost the fight. You still do your best to give good weight.

What we're seeing here isn't disloyalty, or a mutiny by the palace eunuchs. It's not the Deep State, either, although you might call it the deep bench. I don't imagine these guys have any hope of changing Trump. Maybe this is no more than a symbolic gesture, a decent respect. I have to wonder if they're not looking past public opinion, which seems pretty rigid, either way, and the bluster and cowardice of Congress, and speaking to their still-serving peers. It's not about the man, whether Brennan or Trump. That's small potatoes. It's about the mission. It's about something larger than parochial self-interest.

Trump already has an adversarial relationship with his national security staff. He's got the attention span of a fruit-fly, for one, which means his briefers have learned to use block lettering and bright colors. Secondly, he refuses to admit Russian disinformation efforts in the election, and the possible benefit to him. And of course third, he uses every opportunity to malign the integrity of his own agencies, particularly CIA and the Feebs.

You have to wonder how this plays as a team-building effort and management message. Obviously, the personnel still in place aren't sharing. But in the 48 hours after the big guns went public, another sixty former CIA senior staff added their names, and now an additional seventy-five have signed on. That's a fair amount of disgruntlement, and we're not talking about a bunch of starry-eyed innocents, either. These are career intelligence officers. They know where the bodies are buried. They've buried a few.

I can only hazard a guess, but this appears to be an engaged support group. Professional courtesy. Commitment. I think it's a show of hands.  


9 comments:

Robert Lopresti said...

David, I very much appreciate your inside-baseball perspective. Thanks. I have heard that one purpose of allowing people like Brennan to keep their clearance is so that current agents and officials can consult them if some old ghost comes out of the woodwork. Is that a fair assessment? Is the intelligence system losing a resource when a retired official gets cut off, or is it mostly said offical's vanity that gets hurt?

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks for shedding some light on all of that, David. I think we need it.

Eve Fisher said...

Great post, David. I was discussing security clearances just the other day, and I said for all we know, Kissinger might STILL have his security clearance, because I've always been sure he won't let it go until they put him in the casket.

David Edgerley Gates said...

Rob -
The ghost in the woodwork question could go either way. Are you looking to pin the blame on somebody who's been safely put to pasture, or are you looking for clarity in hindsight?
Eve -
I personally think Kissinger's a war criminal, but that's probably not the consensus. I've heard, though, that he's offended nobody from Trump and crew has come to kiss his ring.

Eve Fisher said...

David, I'm with you on Henry K. Sadly, EVERY administration has come to kiss his ring.

R.T. Lawton said...

David, I always enjoy your analysis of the system and the situation. Keep them coming.

Larry K said...

David,
Great post and excellent clarification of the issue.
As a previous holder of the TSI-SBI-Compartmentalized order, and upon retirement having my access revoked, it was a bitter-sweet moment. It's almost like losing a kidney you won't need again. But, it's one less burden to deal with on a regular basis.
I agree with your assessment about the President revoking security clearances of people for purely political issues. In fact, I question his authority to do it without due process. I could understand him suspending a clearance until reviewed, as that is the process I recall us using in the military when we deemed it a necessity for an errant soldier (all ranks inclusive). Taking away a clearance could have financial impacts and I thought (could be wrong) that employment law court decisions give special weight to such things, thus the requirement for due process.
Again, great blog post.

Leigh Lundin said...

David, if you were still in place, I sense your hand would be seen amongst the signatures.

Fascinating insight. I often felt Tenet threw himself on the sword for Bush, a lot of good that did.

When Trump was asked the other day if he'd considered stripping Obama of his security clearance, he gave a hesitant no. But a friend pointed out that days into his administration, Trump had asked about jerking Obama's clearances, and it was explained that no, it could not be done. In case of a mass obliteration of an active administration, past Presidents were expected to remain available for service– one a President, always a President, so to speak.

Great article, David.

Linda Fox said...

I had understood that Brennan was leaking confidential information to the press - a BIG no-no for those in possession of security clearances.

I'm not a fan of everyone keeping their security clearances - too many of them are abusing it by leaking to the media.