Playing Politics With Security Clearances Is Not New

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Since President Donald Trump’s decision last week to revoke the security clearance of former CIA Director John Brennan, nearly 200 former senior national security officials have rushed to his defense.

In open letters and statements, their message is clear: Trump short-circuited an apolitical process for revoking access to state secrets. As one such letter, signed by 15 retired directors and deputy directors at the CIA, puts it: “We have never before seen the approval or removal of security clearances used as a political tool, as was done in this case.”

If only this were true. In fact, the process for granting, suspending and revoking security clearances is deeply flawed — and often political. Bureaucrats in the intelligence community can use the process as a weapon to punish rivals. Political appointees have seen their clearances delayed. The process for appealing revocations can take years, and there is no appeal at all if one’s clearance is merely suspended as opposed to revoked.

Mark Zaid, an attorney who specializes in these kinds of cases, has had many clients who claimed their clearances were suspended or revoked for political reasons. “We often see it for whistleblowers,” he told me. “We’ve certainly seen the security clearance process weaponized.”

Consider the case of Adam Lovinger, a former Pentagon analyst tapped in January 2017 for a senior director post at the National Security Council. He raised concerns with a supervisor before leaving the Pentagon about a handful of contracts he thought wasteful. A few months later, Lovinger’s security clearance was suspended, effectively ending his tenure at the White House.

Lovinger’s attorney, Sean Bigley, told me that the suspension of his clearance was payback for his complaints about the unnecessary contracts. “They claimed he leaked to a reporter,” he said. “They claimed he took classified documents on an airplane, but those documents were not marked as classified. This is someone who was at the Department of Defense for 12 years,” he added, “with stellar evaluations.”

Lovinger’s case, which Bigley has written about elsewhere, has caught the eye of some in Congress. Senator Ted Cruz succeeded in getting language in the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act to make these kinds of clearance investigations more transparent, “to ensure public trust.”

Lovinger is not alone. Dave Wurmser, a former Middle East analyst at the Pentagon and State Department, told me security clearance investigations were used as a weapon to intimidate him. He worked for National Security Adviser John Bolton when he was undersecretary of State in the George W. Bush administration. In 2002, Wurmser was investigated for “leaking” to Pentagon officials an unclassified letter about the State Department’s objections to a congressional bill enacting sanctions against Syria.

The incident, he said, was referred for a security investigation — in part because, Wurmser believes, his boss, Bolton, was in a feud with then Secretary of State Colin Powell. As a result, Wurmser was denied a permanent security clearance for nearly two years.

Wurmser was still able to work with a temporary clearance, but others are not so lucky. Government contractors, for example, who are often former officials who keep their clearances, cannot appeal a suspension at all. Bigley told me that he has had clients who have had their livelihoods ruined because of clearance suspensions and revocations. One retired CIA operations officer who lost his clearance, he said, is now working as a truck driver.

Bradley Moss, a partner at Zaid’s law firm, agreed that the security clearance process is “vulnerable to political and bureaucratic axe grinding.” Nonetheless, he said, it’s important to understand that the revocation of Brennan’s clearance amounts to an unprecedented action by Trump. “He went outside the parameters of the existing executive order on security clearances, there was no appeal process, no statement notifying Brennan of this,” Moss said. “He did none of that.”

That the president has violated protocol, in this and other contexts, hardly qualifies as news anymore. But in the case of the security-clearance process, at least, the protocol was broken already.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast, and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.

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