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Security Clearances Under Threat In The Intelligence Community

LAKSHMI SINGH, HOST:

Turning back to Washington now, where questions continue to mount after President Trump revoked the security clearance of former CIA Director John Brennan this week. Brennan is a vocal critic of the president and has been in his crosshairs for a long time. Trump has threatened to strip other officials of their clearances. And yesterday, he suggested he would take away the clearance of a lawyer still serving in the Justice Department, Bruce Ohr. The president has linked him to special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation.

Our next guest says these threats can have a chilling effect on the rank and file in the intelligence community and Justice Department. He's Patrick Eddington, a former CIA analyst who's now with the Cato Institute.

Welcome.

PATRICK EDDINGTON: Thank you very much. Good to be with you.

SINGH: Good to be with you as well. Let's first clear up - what are the usual grounds for a person losing a security clearance?

EDDINGTON: So if you go through a background investigation, for example, which is normal practice after about five years within the intelligence community, and it's discovered that you have lied about a gambling problem, that you have lied about an alcohol problem, that you have had unreported contacts with foreign nationals - so on and so forth - those would absolutely be grounds for revocation of a security clearance. None of that, of course, is the case with Mr. Brennan, so far as we're aware.

SINGH: But President Trump - the White House - has said that Brennan's consistent criticism of the Trump administration and the number of appearances that he's made has actually proven to be somewhat of a national threat to this country. What do you make of that argument?

EDDINGTON: Well, that's a completely specious argument, naturally. I mean, you have to have a real, legitimate reason for wanting to yank somebody's security clearance. And John Brennan going out and expressing his First Amendment-protected views is not a legitimate reason to do so unless Mr. Brennan, in the course of making some statements, actually revealed classified information - or what is deemed to be currently improperly classified information.

SINGH: And so far, we haven't seen that he's actually revealed anything that was deemed classified?

EDDINGTON: Well, if that were the case, a referral should have been made to the Justice Department for a leak investigation. And neither the president, nor Miss Huckabee Sanders or anybody else in the administration has alleged that that's been the case.

SINGH: You wrote an article in Just Security - that's an online forum - that you don't think John Brennan or James Clapper, the former director of national intelligence, or former NSA Director Michael Hayden are Trump's real targets. Who do you think are the real targets?

EDDINGTON: I think people like Bruce Ohr, the former deputy associate attorney general whose wife worked for Fusion GPS. And for those who may not be familiar, that of course is one of the opposition research firms that Mr. Steele, the British MI5 agent, was involved with and the Democratic Party was involved with trying to go after Mr. Trump during the campaign.

What I worry about is that essentially the precedent of Brennan being targeted and now potentially Bruce Ohr being targeted is just kind of the camel's nose under the tent, if you will, of Mr. Trump and his people trying to go after Mr. Mueller and the FBI agents and attorneys that are actually working on the Russia probe. That's been my concern from the very beginning with all of this.

SINGH: So you write about them. Who are the people, the faces of those who stand to be directly affected really?

EDDINGTON: So we're talking about U.S. government civil servant employees, people basically in their 30s to maybe 50s. We're talking about married couples or perhaps even, you know, single parents maybe with kids, including kids in college. And here's the key - for all these folks in the civil service who work in the Justice Department and the FBI, it is absolutely mandatory for them to be able to gain and maintain an active security clearance in order to do investigations. And I'm not just talking about the Russian investigation. I'm talking about counterintelligence investigations generally. So when you go after the clearance of somebody at that level in the bureaucracy, you are literally directly threatening their livelihood. And I believe that's exactly what the president is trying to do here.

SINGH: Could the president's threats to take away security clearances have an impact on the Mueller investigation? You touched on that, but tell me a little bit more.

EDDINGTON: Well, I think if he begins to actually target some of the FBI agents or attorneys who are working on the investigation, that will be the real moment of truth for Jeff Sessions, the attorney general, and his deputy, Rod Rosenstein because that would be a back-end way essentially of trying to undermine the investigation.

It raises an interesting question, too, about whether or not, you know, Mr. Mueller could then turn around and directly charge the president with attempting to obstruct the investigation itself. So I'm not sure that the president's quite ready to cross that line yet. But given his tempestuousness, his, you know, kind of off-the-cuff, on-the-fly way of governing, if you will, I don't think anything is beyond the realm of the possible.

SINGH: That's Patrick Eddington. He served as a military imagery analyst at the CIA from 1988 to 1996. He's currently a policy analyst at the Cato Institute.

Mr. Eddington, thank you for your time.

EDDINGTON: My pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.