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Trump’s threat to revoke security clearances could create an ‘atmosphere of fear’

The threat from the White House to possibly revoke security clearances of six former national security and intelligence officials -- all of whom have been critical of President Trump -- has set off bipartisan criticism. Former CIA general counsel Jeffrey Smith tells Nick Schifrin that the element of fear could cause current national security officials to hesitate to tell the truth.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Trade is not the only area where Republicans are questioning the president.

    A threat issued from the White House yesterday to possibly revoke security clearances of six former national security and intelligence officials set off bipartisan criticism.

    Nick Schifrin has the story.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    On Air Force One this evening, a White House spokesperson said the president has begun to, "begun the mechanism to revoke the clearances."

    The half-dozen targeted have all been critical of the president.

    Press Secretary Sarah Sanders, who first announced the threat to revoke yesterday, said the former officials' comments on the administration's Russia policy were inappropriate.

    Today, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan said this about President Trump's motives.

  • Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis.:

    I think he's trolling people, honestly.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And to talk about this, I'm joined by Jeffrey Smith, former general counsel for the CIA and former general counsel for the Senate Armed Services Committee.

    Jeffrey Smith, is it appropriate for the White House, for the president to revoke or to threaten to revoke former national security officials' clearances?

  • Jeffrey Smith:

    No, it's not.

    Inappropriate is too weak a word, in my view. I can understand why the president is angry. But the way to respond is to respond with a factual response, not to seek to intimidate and bully those who have spoken out against him.

    Former officials who have devoted their lives to this country, they do not deserve to be treated this way. They have their right to speak. And it's highly inappropriate for the president to seek to intimidate or bully them.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    What's the impact of this kind of threat, not only on these former officials? But is there any impact on current intelligence officials who might brief the president or in the White House?

  • Jeffrey Smith:

    Yes, I think there is.

    It injects an element of fear in the system. The clearance is essential to the performance of your job. And there are rules for how you get a clearance, and there are rules for how a clearance is revoked.

    And the president has just publicly said that these clearances must be revoked. That's never happened before, not even in the McCarthy or Nixon era.

    And what that does is, it creates an atmosphere of fear in the national security communities that, if an individual, a serving officer speaks, even perhaps in private within the confines of his or her own agency, a politically appointed person might listen to that and think they're being disloyal, and report them.

    And the president could say, well, that's — they should lose their clearance.

    This element of fear is dangerous, and it will cause people to hesitate to tell the truth.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    We heard this White House spokesperson on Air Force One talk about beginning the process.

    Can the president just do this? Can he just say that the clearances should be revoked, and would they be revoked?

  • Jeffrey Smith:

    Not without breaking all the rules that have been created by executive order.

    There's an executive order that lays out the — quote — "adjudication guidelines" for what — how a person is evaluated for a clearance, as well as what happens if a person no longer meets those guidelines.

    The president just simply can't say, this person has revoked the clearances. If that's what he thinks should happen, then he should issue a new regulation that says anyone who speaks and is critical of the policy of the government no longer is entitled to a clearance.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    On the other hand, doesn't the administration have a point?

    These former officials, or, frankly, many former officials, don't they monetize their clearances? Don't they use the clearances that they got in government in order to get private sector jobs? Doesn't the administration have a point there?

  • Jeffrey Smith:

    I'm not sure what the connection is between monetizing their clearances to perform legitimate work for companies or to advise the government and the criticism that Ms. Sanders made yesterday that they have somehow politicized their clearances.

    It's just a — I don't understand the logic there. It is certainly true that, when you leave the government, you have a continuing obligation to protect classified information. If you disclose it, it's a crime. If you do any of the other things that could cause you to lose a clearance, alcoholism, drug abuse, financial problems, and so on, you could lose a clearance, but not for speaking your mind, not for criticizing the president, particularly by former officials.

    They write books, they teach classes, they contribute to the debate. It's an abuse of the president's powers. And I hope the agencies will resist it.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    You used the word abuse there.

    The president, the White House argues that, well, these former officials are basically abusing the president. You had John Brennan calling President Trump's performance with Vladimir Putin nothing short of treasonous. Jim Clapper compared the president to a Russian intelligence asset.

    I mean, is that appropriate for senior officials? Is that language that that's appropriate for senior officials to use?

  • Jeffrey Smith:

    I will leave to them whether it's appropriate. I understand their concern about what the president is doing.

    My point simply is that the president's response shouldn't be to seek to revoke their clearances, but he should respond in kind by saying, what you say is not true.

    But many of his responses, it seems to me, ring hollow. His actions with respect to Russia are not consistent with, in my judgment, what really should be American interests. And it's inexplicable.

    And these are officials who worry terribly about this country and what he is doing.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Jeffrey Smith, thank you very much.

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