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Trump using his unique power to punish and intimidate critics, former CIA official says

President Trump's move to revoke John Brennan's security clearance rippled across Washington, and the former CIA director cast it as a disturbing power play. And Brennan might not be the only former intelligence or national security official to have his clearance taken away; the president has threatened others as well. Judy Woodruff gets reaction from former CIA official John McLaughlin.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Former CIA Director John Brennan might not be the only former national security official to have his security clearance revoked by President Trump.

    Last night, the president tweeted a statement he attributed to Fox News host Sean Hannity saying, I would strip the whole bunch of them. They're all corrupt. They've all abused their power. They've all betrayed the American people with a political agenda. They tried to steal and influence an election in the United States.

    Mr. Trump has threatened to revoke the security clearances from others, too, including Bruce Ohr, who is a career official now at the Department of Justice. According to reports, Ohr's wife worked for Fusion GPS, that is the private research firm that compiled the much publicized dossier on President Trump during the 2016 campaign.

    So how does all this look to people who have served in the intelligence community?

    For that, we turn to John McLaughlin. He had a three-decade career at the CIA. He served as acting director during the George W. Bush administration.

    John McLaughlin, welcome back to the NewsHour.

  • John McLaughlin:

    Thank you, Judy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What do you make of President Trump personally revoking the security clearance for John Brennan?

  • John McLaughlin:

    Well, it's unprecedented. That's the first thing to say. I think second, I believe the president has crossed an important line here.

    He has intimidated people before. He's called people names before, but this to me is first time he's used power that's uniquely his to punish and with the hope of intimidating an individual who opposes him and argues against him politically. I think that's a very bad sign.

    I've seen this movie before, and it's usually not in democratic societies. It's something that people do, tyrants do, in countries where there is not free speech. And John Brennan is expressing his view.

    I think it transcends John Brennan. I don't think we should focus on John Brennan so much. It doesn't matter what he says. Assuming he's not calling for insurrection or, you know, fire in a crowded theater, it's his right to express his point of view, and whether he has a clearance or not has no bearing on that.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Does it really not matter? Is there no limit to what — well, you said there are some limits.

  • John McLaughlin:

    There are some limits obviously to free speech.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But what — but what we know, John Brennan has said — he accused the president of treasonous statements when he was with Vladimir Putin at that summit in believing Putin over the U.S. intelligence.

  • John McLaughlin:

    Right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Just yesterday, he made the comment or today in "The New York Times", he wrote that he believes that in essence that the president did collude with the Russians to corrupt this last election.

  • John McLaughlin:

    Well, these are his views. I think analytically this is what he's concluded, connecting the dots, if you will, to use that phrase.

    The problem is there are procedures and process for revoking someone's clearance. It's written down in executive order. Here it is. It's 26 pages. There are 13 reasons given in here for reasons to revoke a security clearance.

    One of them is not having a view that's contrary to the president. One of them is not what the president accuses him of, erratic behavior and so forth. John Brennan's behavior meets none of these criteria. Now, the president can change this executive order if he's looked at it. It was issued during his time in office.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, the president doesn't have the authority to override that?

  • John McLaughlin:

    He does. Now, I'm not a lawyer, so you may want to check that opinion, but I've talked to attorneys about this. I believe the president has the power to override this.

    But that's another thing that makes this a bit unique. It's one of the few times that he has chosen to override established procedure to in this case I think punish someone who is politically at odds with him.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Let me cite what the chairman or I should say the chairman of the Senate Special Select Committee on Intelligence, Richard Burr, Republican of North Carolina —

  • John McLaughlin:

    Right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    — said today. He issued a statement saying, you know, the comment by John Brennan that the president — the suggestion that he did collude with the Russians, he said if he knew this before he left office, he should have — it should have been released. It should have been made public then. He said if he's learned it since then, he should have turned that over to the special counsel, to Robert Mueller.

    But he goes on to say, and I'm going to quote this, he said if, however, Director Brennan's statement about collusion is purely political and based on conjecture, the president has the full authority to revoke his security clearance as head of the executive branch.

  • John McLaughlin:

    Well, you know, I have a lot of respect for Senator Burr. He's run a very good committee, and I think in a non-partisan way. But I would disagree with him on that point, and that's my right in a democracy.

    I don't know the basis for John Brennan's statements that he's made recently, but I would guess, suspect, knowing him, that these are his judgments based on not classified intelligence or something he's withheld from someone, but simply conclusions he's come to by what he and what many others have seen. He's not only the person to say that. Not only the person saying that.

    And particularly, the last point that you quoted, I would disagree with. If he's making this statement for — I forget the words — for purely political reasons.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    If it's purely political and based on conjecture.

  • John McLaughlin:

    Based on conjecture. The implication of that, if you were to carry it a bit further is American citizens should not criticize the president based on pure political considerations or conjecture, which by the way, is often the definition of politics.

    So I think there's a big issue involved here that someone has to ferret out. In the end, the worst thing the president can do is to deprive an American citizen of his or her rights.

    Under the regulations, if someone were to pursue them, this is something that would normally, when a clearance is revoked, be considered in what are called administrative courts.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right.

  • John McLaughlin:

    I don't know whether it will go to that point or not.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, let me ask you just quickly about the significance of losing that clearance. You're a former government official.

  • John McLaughlin:

    I am.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You have a security clearance still.

  • John McLaughlin:

    I do.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What's the value of that? I mean — and what — does it matter if a former official is no longer in office loses it– how much does it matter?

  • John McLaughlin:

    I think it can matter a great deal. I'll just take my personal case. I participate voluntarily without pay in some CIA training programs. In 2009 and 2010, I was asked to come back into the government without pay for a period of about six months where I chaired a committee, a panel, if you will, that looked at the reasons that we had failed to detect the terrorist attack on the United States, an attempted attack. You'll remember it, Abdulmutallab, the Christmas bomber.

    We did that for sick months, issued a report. The recommendations were adopted. It was highly classified. I couldn't have done it if I hadn't retained my clearance.

    And that's one way in which the clearance is important and you get called back to government, not just by the president or the White House, but by someone who is pursuing a terrorist or trying to figure out what's going on with the Iran nuclear program. You may have specialized knowledge. You may be in a better position than others to judge what they're concluding, to offer an opinion. It's used in those ways.

    I want to disabuse your viewers of the idea that having the security clearance means that I go home at night or one of us goes home at night and opens up our computer and reads classified information or, for that matter, goes into the CIA or the NSA or somewhere and says, I'd like to read some classified information. We don't do that typically.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It's only when you're invited in.

  • John McLaughlin:

    It's when you're invited in and when there's a need for your view.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But your point is it's a valuable — it's a valuable thing to have, the access — the information and the intelligence of former officials.

  • John McLaughlin:

    That's my view.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    John McLaughlin, former acting head of the CIA, long-time CIA official — thank you very much.

  • John McLaughlin:

    Thank you, Judy.

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