Trump’s Petty Insult to Former Intelligence Chiefs

(The Bloomberg View) -- President Trump has threatened to take away the security clearances of former high-ranking intelligence officials who’ve criticized his policies. Intended as punishment for the likes of former FBI director James Comey, former director of national intelligence James Clapper and former CIA and NSA head Michael Hayden, the idea is petty even by this president’s standards. Fortunately, it’s also largely pointless.

Trump says these officials have “monetized” their clearances — presumably by writing memoirs or selling services that rely on them. But clearance isn’t access. The U.S. government has three levels of clearance — top secret, secret and confidential, which can last five years or more. None automatically grants access to secrets. That’s given to people with the appropriate clearance on a need-to-know basis. Clapper, for example, has said he retains his clearance but has no access to classified information.

In addition, it’s good that former officials write books that shed light on U.S. policy-making, or can be called upon to advise their successors or the president, or sit on high-level commissions. Granting clearances and need-to-know access to former officials can serve the public interest.

Threatening to punish critics would be bad enough. More ominously, stripping the credentials of former intelligence chiefs could be seen (and might be intended) as a warning to people still in government, including those investigating Russian meddling in 2016 presidential election.

None of this is to say that the country’s systems for keeping secrets are working as they should. As many as 4 million people have some kind of security clearance. Many aren’t civil servants but work for private contractors. (Edward Snowden was one.) This glut of clearance holders arises, in turn, from the fact that far too many government documents are classified.

There’s a backlog of roughly 700,000 clearance applications, and the cost of each one has increased by 40 percent since 2014. The process for the top-secret level takes more than a year on average.

Classification and the clearances it requires should be thoroughly streamlined. Documents ought to be classified more sparingly — instead of by default, as often seems to be the case. Fewer clearances would then be needed, and the process could be further sped up by simplifying the vetting and making clearances transferable across departments.   

You could say Trump has stumbled on a real problem, though for the wrong reasons. And solving it is hardly his purpose. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan dismissed the president’s threat as “trolling” — provocation aimed only at infuriating political opponents. Even if it’s bound to fail, an effort to silence and intimidate is worse than that, and deserves the strongest condemnation.

Editorials are written by the Bloomberg View editorial board.

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