There is little dispute that President Donald Trump has the basic authority to revoke security clearances for current and former federal officials, as he did last week in the case of former CIA Director John Brennan and has threatened to do for several others who have criticized him.
The rules for security clearances are governed by executive order, not law, and the president is the head of the executive branch.
But how far does that power extend? Are there any limits to the president’s ability to restrict a person’s access to classified information for any reason he chooses?
The answer is unclear, say national-security lawyers and experts on secrecy laws, and it might take a lawsuit by Brennan to settle the question once and for all. “It has never been tested in court,” said Jeffrey Smith, a former general counsel for the CIA and a longtime national-security lawyer. “It’s not clear that the president is acting legally.”
Trump revoked Brennan’s clearance last week, citing in a statement his “erratic conduct and behavior.” Brennan, who served as a top counterterrorism adviser and then CIA director under former President Barack Obama, has been one of the most vociferous critics of Trump in the tight-knit community of former senior intelligence and national-security officials. But in a subsequent interview, the president suggested that Brennan’s involvement in the intelligence assessment that led to the federal investigation into whether Trump’s campaign colluded with the Russians played into his decision.