The Mystery of the Disappearing Security Clearance

President Trump tried to unilaterally strip a CIA director’s security clearance, but it’s still unclear whether he actually did.

Editor’s Note: This article is one of 50 in a series about Trump's first two years as president.

On August 15, 2018, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders stepped into the White House briefing room to read a remarkable statement: The president had decided to strip former CIA Director John Brennan of his security clearance. Sanders named other former officials who might soon suffer the same penalty, including former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, former FBI Director James Comey, former CIA Director Michael Hayden, former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates, former National-Security Adviser Susan Rice, former Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe, and the former FBI agents Peter Strzok, Lisa Page, and Bruce Ohr.

The motive for the clearance announcement was not concealed: the president’s personal animus against those persons, as declared again and again, especially on Twitter.

“Has anyone looked at the mistakes that John Brennan made while serving as CIA Director? He will go down as easily the WORST in history & since getting out, he has become nothing less than a loudmouth, partisan, political hack who cannot be trusted with the secrets to our country!”

Former senior officials retain their clearance not as a perk, but as a service to the country: so they are available to provide insight and advice to their successors. To use clearances as an instrument of personal retaliation—it upended American norms. Sixty former CIA officials signed an open letter on August 17: “Former government officials have the right to express their unclassified views on what they see as critical national security issues without fear of being punished for doing so.”

And then an already disturbing story took an even more bizarre turn. Brennan’s clearance status disappeared into a fog of mystery. Nobody—including Brennan and the other targeted officials—seems to know for certain whether Donald Trump’s administration ever took any action to enforce the president’s decision.

In the past, it was always assumed that stripping a clearance required at least a minimum of due process, including notice to the targeted person. Nothing like that happened. It’s not impossible that the president’s people issued their threats without doing their homework first. Maybe when they realized that the process would be more complicated and legally vulnerable than they had carelessly assumed, they quietly shelved the whole thing. Bullying mitigated by incompetence has often enough characterized Trump-administration actions.

Or perhaps—even more ominously—the Trump administration stripped Brennan’s clearance without any process at all, without even informing him of its actions. A clearance is not a badge worn around one’s neck. It’s a grant of permission-in-advance to view secret materials if the former official has occasion to view them. If there’s no occasion to view such materials, the clearance ceases to matter very much. It could lapse without the former official ever noticing.

So the administration may have broken precedent in more than one way.

Possibly, security clearances have been revoked to retaliate for First Amendment–protected speech by former government officials. Possibly, security clearances have been revoked without notice or process, in violation of long-established norms—and quite possibly of outright law.

Or possibly, Trump and his press secretary hurled their insults and issued their threats … and then retreated without admitting it, as they have previously done on so many other issues of national security. That would be a win for the rule of law in this country—but a warning that one of these days this crew may stumble unprepared into something more serious, such as a war on the Korean peninsula or elsewhere, that won’t fade away because the administration quits talking about it.