Opinion

Opinion | Andrew J. Bacevich

Security clearances should terminate with government employment

Photo illustration by Lesley Becker/Globe Staff; Adobe Stock; AP
Lesley Becker/Globe Staff | Adobe Stock/AP

PRESIDENT TRUMP apparently thinks that stripping former high-ranking national security officials of their security clearances will stem the avalanche of criticism that he and his administration absorb on a daily basis. If so, he needs to think again. His typically ham-handed action is having just the opposite effect. It is exacerbating rather than suppressing dissent. In my estimation, this is all to the good.

Yet the understandable furor ignited by the president’s latest Nixonian vendetta should not distract from a larger question: How is it that former officials retain privileged access to state secrets in the first place? Who benefits from this well-established practice?

The nation itself benefits, we are told. The argument goes like this: Allowing such individuals, now typically employed by universities, think tanks, and lobbying firms, to retain their clearances keeps them in the know should current officials wish to draw on their experience and expertise. Yet this, to appropriate a term that ex-CIA director John Brennan included in a New York Times op-ed penned in response to Trump terminating his own clearance, is “hogwash.”

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In the unlikely event that current CIA director Gina Haspel needs Brennan’s advice on a question that her agency’s 21,000 employees can’t answer, all she needs to do is give him a call. Even without a clearance, he still has a phone. In the even more unlikely — make that wildly improbable — event that national security adviser John Bolton wishes to avail himself of the wisdom of Susan Rice, who held his job during Obama’s second term, he need only turn on the television or check newspaper opinion pages. As was the case when Bolton himself was pontificating on Fox News, her views are readily available, free of charge. And they will continue to be available even if, as reported, she is among those in line to have their clearances revoked.

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So let’s have done with the pretense that allowing former officials access to classified information enhances national security. In reality, the practice has everything to do with the allocation and perpetuation of privilege.

According to the Declaration of Independence, “all men are created equal.” As a general proposition, that may be true. Yet in policy circles, men and women enjoying access to state secrets are more equal than the rest of us. Clearances confer status, readily convertible into access, influence, and opportunity, monetary and otherwise. The more exotic the clearance — up in the realm beyond Top Secret, for example — the greater the access and influence and the more attractive the opportunities.

To retain a security clearance after leaving government is to display an invisible badge declaring of the bearer: Although now on the outside, I’m still an insider. Whether intended or not, this arrangement divides citizens into two camps. In the one camp are those ostensibly in the know: members of the policy elite. In the other camp are the rest of us, knowing what we read in the papers, otherwise kept in the dark, and expected to comply.

If evidence exists to show that this arrangement yields more effective policy, I have yet to see it. Certainly the record of US policy in recent decades suggests otherwise. I am, however, certain that an arrangement allowing the few to have a say while casting the great majority in the role of spectators is antithetical to democracy.

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It doesn’t have to be this way. A hallowed principle supposedly governs access to classified information. It’s called “need to know.” Under the terms of this principle, individuals are allowed access only to information that is essential to the performance of their assigned duties. But former officials have no official duties. Therefore, they have no “need to know.”

Allow me to propose another principle: Clearances should terminate with government employment, plain and simple. Adherence to this principle will deprive Trump (and his successors) of the opportunity to play politics with matters that should be above politics. If only in a small way, it will also contribute to restoring our democracy.

Andrew J. Bacevich’s new book, “Twilight of the American Century,” will be published this fall.