Once again, an American president is waging a personal vendetta against his critics — using his executive power to take down those who would dare to speak out vehemently against his policies and conduct in office.
It’s like we are stuck in a time machine. It is 1974 all over again.
Back then, Richard Nixon was the man in the Oval Office. There were mysterious tapes of his conversations… concerns about misdeeds… and a presidential enemies list.
Yes, a list of political critics Nixon wanted to hurt… and hurt bad.
Now, 44 years later, Donald Trump is acting in Nixon’s image.
Trump has vowed revenge against former and current members of the intelligence community who speak out against him, even though their allegiance is to the national security of the United States and not to an elected individual.
Victim number one was John Brennan, a career intelligence officer who headed the Central Intelligence Agency during President Barack Obama’s second term in office.
Recently, Trump made the politically motivated decision to revoke Brennan’s security clearance, which gave the former CIA chief continuing access to classified information.
It was a nasty move. It was vindictive. And it was wrong.
Leaders of the intelligence community are routinely permitted to maintain access to highly sensitive national security materials once they step down so they can use their knowledge of the past to help their successors deal with the threats of today and tomorrow.
Brennan has decades of insights to share, but because he has criticized the president on television and in social media, his security clearance is gone. And Trump has hinted this may be just the beginning.
As David Ignatius wrote in the Washington Post, what Trump did “isn’t supposed to happen in a democracy… stripping Brennan’s clearance was political payback.”
It goes far deeper than one man losing access to the latest intel. The result could be a chilling effect on the entire intelligence community, not to mention those at the Justice Department currently investigating possible links between the 2016 Trump presidential campaign and efforts by Russia to influence that election.
In an essay published on the opinion page of the New York Times, Brennan wrote:
“Mr. Trump clearly has become more desperate to protect himself and those close to him, which is why he made the politically motivated decision to revoke my security clearance in an attempt to scare into silence others who might dare to challenge him.”
Brennan — who can be every bit as stubborn as President Trump, according to those who know him well — later accused the president of trying to “frighten and intimidate.”
He also said Trump, who never touches alcohol, “is drunk on power… he really is.”
Few Republicans in Congress have risen to Brennan’s defense. But soon after the White House announcement, former top intelligence officials were lining up to show their support.
Within 12 hours, CIA directors who had served every single former US president since Ronald Reagan signed on to a letter publicly criticizing Trump’s decision to penalize Brennan, calling it a blatant attempt to “stifle free speech.”
That first letter was signed by a dozen top officials — Republicans and Democrats. So many others wanted to join in, that there was a second letter for CIA analysts… and then a third for others slightly lower on the organizational chart.
None of these letters elicited much of a public response from the president or those close to him. As a matter of fact, there are reports that Trump is itching to do it again, and documents have already been prepared to revoke the security clearances of many other former and current officials who have angered the president.
Brennan has said he may sue Trump and try to use the legal system to protect those at risk of losing access to classified materials for purely political reasons. The president’s response has been, simply, “bring it on.”
In the United States, federal government security clearances are granted by intelligence agencies only after rigorous background checks. They are seldom cancelled but when they are, it is usually because the official in question has leaked sensitive information.
The White House has made clear that it has no proof that Brennan ever leaked classified material and thus constitutes a threat to national security. Instead, Trump has called Brennan a “hack,” who has leveraged his continued access to highly sensitive information to make “unfounded and outrageous allegations.”
Some observers say the president wants to make an example of Brennan and make him the face of an anti-Trump movement. Others theorize that what Trump really wants to do is send a message to current Justice Department and CIA staffers that they have much to fear if they speak out against him.
And then there are some with long ties to the intelligence community who say this whole effort by the White House to discredit a vocal critic is likely to backfire in the end. Michael Morell is one of them.
He joined the CIA in 1980, eventually becoming the official who oversaw the daily briefings provided to former President George W. Bush — including those he delivered personally in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States.
In a conversation with Mike Allen of the Axios news service, Morell put the focus on the display of unity so evident in the three letters signed by more than 200 intelligence officials who have dedicated their lives and careers to protecting the nation they love:
“People are essentially saying to the president: ‘We will not be intimidated by you. For those of us who have been speaking up, we will continue to. And if we haven’t been, we’re going to start speaking up.”
They have formed their own list of those willing to stand up to President Trump. Though dealing in secrets during their careers, they are now refusing to live in silence.