Small World: Securing secrets or selling scores?

Henry Precht

By Henry Precht

BN Columnist

President Trump has revoked the security clearance of John Brennan, career spy, former advisor to President Obama, and ex-director of the CIA. If anyone knows where all the bodies are buried, it is most assuredly he. But what’s the real story of U.S. government secrets and access to what Washington knows that we citizens aren’t privy to? We are supposed to be an open — “transparent” is the word — government. Our citizens should have a clear and unimpeded right to know what their government is up to.

Critics of Mr. Trump (and they abound in our land) say he was plainly wrong in revoking Brennan’s clearance and threatening a similar revocation of the clearances of other former and a few serving officials who don’t care for him and speak their minds. Revoking security clearances is an unconstitutional attack on the target person’s right of free speech, Trump critics say. The president had no legitimate cause to act against them, they add.

I would differ: these ex-officials, holding no position of responsibility, should not be delving into classified material. Although knowledgeable about past secrets, they no longer have that duty or privilege to peek behind the curtain. In my view, their access to classified material ended when they left the payroll. Trump’s revoking security clearance was his [typically] crude say of showing the door to someone he doesn’t much like. But who would feel friendly or even neutral toward an enemy who called him a traitor?

We read in the press voices of now defunct officials fear that revocation of their security clearances will impair their ability to find lucrative work with national security contractors. I say, too bad. Our system of classifying (over-classifying is more accurate) material was not designed for the convenience and profit of contractors. It has the sole function of preventing the compromise of information that must be protected for the nation’s safety.

The sad thing for Mr. Trump is that his sly or roundabout assault on his enemies probably won’t work. It will only make them more determined to lash him with their barbed, poisonous tongues. The best way to handle critics who find fault with your every act, wise heads tell is, is to ignore them, give them the silent treatment.

Unfortunately, that prescription ignores the great beam that is lodged in the Trump psyche: He has a massive and uncontrollably-sensitive ego. A few foreigners and other favor seekers have learned the necessity of appealing to his overweening sense of self. Flattery, they have learned, is the key to open all doors at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

But back to Brennan and his band of once influential, now defunct critical enemies of Trump. The problem with their vile tongues is that their moment has passed. They are out of touch — especially with the newly-arrived political masters in Washington. They can display as much knowledge and hands-on experience as space on their resumes will permit, but if they don’t know how to live in the new political environment, their wisdom will fall on sterile ground. In my days on the State Department Iran Desk I had not a few Foreign Service veterans of the old, pre-Revolution days in Tehran offer to guide me through the complexities of that very different society. I declined their wisdom, pointing out that the Revolution had changed much that they learned in olden days. (A bit of exaggeration, but it dealt with unwanted guests and their advice.)

In all modesty, I would say my ego is minute compared to the presidential version that we have come to know and wake up to most mornings. Still, my patience and the constraints of a mere cog in the machine were severely tested by outsiders, who were once insiders and who thought they knew more than us, the currently responsible parties.

Thus, I say, let’s show a little understanding and patience with a president who has become the fashionable target of a multitude of barbed dart and dirt throwers whose days of power and glory are faded and past (but who probably hope to return some day after a change in politics).

Henry Precht is a retired Foreign Service Officer.

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