Many in the intelligence community have been quietly dismayed by the hyperbolic partisan behavior of former CIA Director John Brennan since Donald Trump took office. But by revoking Brennan’s security clearance, the president has managed to turn Brennan from an embarrassment into a martyr.
The response to Trump’s action has been like the scene in the 1960 movie “Spartacus” when a Roman general announces to a group of rebel slaves that they will be spared crucifixion — but only if they turn in Spartacus, the leader of the revolt. One by one, the slaves stand up and shout, “I am Spartacus.”
As former CIA Director Michael Hayden has pointed out, a similar scene is playing out today in the intelligence community. The first to yell “I am Spartacus” was retired Adm. William H. McRaven, former head of U.S. Joint Special Operations Command, who declared in a Post op-ed, “I would consider it an honor if you would revoke my security clearance as well, so I can add my name to the list of men and women who have spoken up against your presidency.”
Then 12 former CIA directors, CIA deputy directors and directors of national intelligence declared in a joint letter that they, too, were Spartacus: “You don’t have to agree with what John Brennan says (and, again, not all of us do) to agree with his right to say it, subject to his obligation to protect classified information.” The number of signatories is now at 15.
They were soon joined by 60 former CIA officers, who signed a letter of their own and released it last week declaring they were Spartacus. “Our signatures below do not necessarily mean that we concur with the opinions expressed by former CIA Director Brennan or the way in which he expressed them,” they wrote, but “the country will be weakened if there is a political litmus test applied before seasoned experts are allowed to share their views.” By Tuesday, the number of signatories had grown to 177 and included former senior officials from the State, Defense and Justice departments, as well as the National Security Council and even NASA.
Note the pains the writers took to distance themselves from both the substance and style of Brennan’s attacks on Trump. Brennan’s conduct has been deeply controversial in intelligence circles — and with good reason. Brennan previously lashed out at Trump, declaring on Twitter, “When the full extent of your venality, moral turpitude, and political corruption becomes known, you will take your rightful place as a disgraced demagogue in the dustbin of history.” Brennan has also warned Republican members of Congress that “Legislators who try to protect (Trump) will face November reckoning.”
But, most egregious of all, Brennan accused Trump of treason, tweeting that Trump’s performance at his Helsinki news conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin “rises to &exceeds the threshold of ‘high crimes &misdemeanors’” and “was nothing short of treasonous.” This was both outrageous and absurd. A news conference, however embarrassing, is not an impeachable offense. On NBC’s “Meet the Press” last Sunday Brennan stood by his ridiculous accusation.
Even some former officials deeply concerned by Trump’s policies and behavior have been taken aback by the barrage of partisan invective. James R. Clapper Jr., who worked for President Barack Obama alongside Brennan as director of national intelligence, recently complained, “John and his rhetoric have become an issue in and of itself.” Retired Adm. Mike Mullen, who served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Obama, said Brennan’s partisan criticism of Trump “has put him in a political place which actually does more damage for the intelligence community.” He’s right. Brennan’s actions have harmed the intelligence community, which prides itself on staying above the partisan fray, and have fed the narrative of a “deep state” seeking to undermine Trump.
But revoking Brennan’s security clearance has not hurt Brennan. To the contrary, Trump has rescued Brennan from his own partisan hackery and given him an even greater platform from which to spew his bile. Indeed, the president admitted as much on Friday, saying, “If anything, I’m giving him a bigger voice.”
Yes, Mr. President, you are — and that is a big mistake.
Follow Marc A. Thiessen on Twitter, @marcthiessen.