Michael A. Cohen

The US civil-military divide is losing its balance

Former CIA director John Brennan testified at a House Intelligence Committee hearing on May 23, 2017.
Former CIA director John Brennan testified at a House Intelligence Committee hearing on May 23, 2017.(Al Drago/The New York Times)

On the surface, President Trump’s decision to strip former CIA director John Brennan of his security clearance is relatively small potatoes. The Trump administration isn’t going to be asking Brennan to do classified consulting any time soon and, if they did, he probably would’t comply.

But, in the larger scheme of things, Trump’s move is a shocking abuse of presidential power that may have a dangerous ripple effect on the already precarious state of civil-military relations.

At the outset, let’s be clear as to why this action was taken against Brennan: Trump is brazenly seeking to silence and intimidate those who are critical of his administration. White House press secretary Sarah Sanders cited Brennan’s allegedly “erratic conduct and behavior” as the reason behind the move. But the president, in his indomitable Trumpian style of consistently saying the quiet part out loud, told the Wall Street Journal the real reason: “I call it the rigged witch hunt, [it] is a sham. And these people led it. So I think it’s something that had to be done.”

Indeed, the most telling evidence of Trump’s true motivation is that nine other individuals are apparently having their security clearances reviewed: James Clapper, James Comey, Michael Hayden, Sally Yates, Susan Rice, Andrew McCabe, Peter Strzok, Lisa Page, and Bruce Ohr.


What do these nine people have in common? They are all critics of the president or witnesses to his misconduct. Considering that senior officials rarely, if ever, have their security clearances taken away unless they have violated rules around the handling of classified material, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what’s going on here. This move is not about Brennan. It’s about intimidating presidential critics and once again trying to delegitimize key players in the Russia investigation.


But as bad as Trump’s actions may be, they are feeding an equally dangerous response. The day after Trump’s actions against Brennan, William McRaven, the former head of the US Joint Special Operations Command, wrote in the Washington Post that he told the president, “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.”

McRaven, who like many former military officials has largely stayed out of politics, said, “You have embarrassed us in the eyes of our children, humiliated us on the world stage and, worst of all, divided us as a nation.”

Then, on Thursday night, 12 former director and deputy directors of the CIA penned their own letter, saying the move against Brennan “has nothing to do with who should and should not hold security clearances — and everything to do with an attempt to stifle free speech.”

There’s little doubt that this is correct, but these dozen former officials and McRaven are imperfect messengers. These are individuals who are supposed to be apolitical. Indeed, the country’s civil-military balance relies on those in positions of power within the national security bureaucracy to stay out of the political fray.

To be clear: I am not criticizing them for speaking up. With such blatant abuses of power by the president, they have a duty and responsibility to speak out.


But their outspokenness risks having a corrosive, long-term effect, where individuals who are supposed to be above the daily machinations of politics are now mired in it.

This is what Trump and his enablers have wrought. He politicizes everything — from security clearances to Justice Department investigations. He goes to military rallies and veterans events and delivers partisan, political speeches. He attacks America’s intelligence agencies and muses about a “deep state” that is out to get him. He makes that which should not be political . . . political.

It’s only natural — and necessary — for those within the national security bureaucracy to respond in kind. But former intelligence officials and former generals being dragged into partisan political debates is the kind of development that does not bode well for maintaining the long-held and once-sacrosanct notion of a civil-military divide. There are at least a few things in America that need to be outside the political realm — the functioning of our military and intelligence bureaucracy are among the most obvious and yet, under Trump, they’ve become two more areas of partisan dispute.

It’s yet one more reminder that in ways both big and small, Trump’s presence in our public life is chipping away, block by block, at the most essential elements of our democratic system.

Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.