There isn’t any obvious precedent for a former CIA head to publicly call a sitting U.S. president “treasonous.”
But John Brennan’s July 16 tweet—which condemned President Trump’s conciliatory appearance alongside Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki—was just part of an extraordinary chorus of criticism by former senior intelligence and military officials. Former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told CNN that Trump had “failed America.” Former national intelligence director James Clapper told the network the president “capitulated” to Putin.
This week brought a new swell of criticism after the president used the power of his office to strike back at Brennan by revoking his security clearance.
In a searing op-ed in the Washington Post, the commander who led the raid that killed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, retired Navy Adm. William McRaven, called Trump’s tactics “McCarthy-era,” and rhetorically demanded that the president revoke his credentials, too.
Trump’s action also sparked an astonishing rebuke from senior intelligence and military leaders from both Republican and Democratic administrations, who defended Brennan’s right to speak publicly as he has and accused Trump of trampling on the First Amendment.
“Since leaving government service John has chosen to speak out sharply regarding what he sees as threats to our national security,” the former officials wrote in a Thursday open letter. “Some of the undersigned have done so as well. Others among us have elected to take a different course and be more circumspect in our public pronouncements.
“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 imbroglio has thrown the spotlight on the high-visibility roles that former intelligence and military leaders like Brennan, Clapper, former NSA head Michael Hayden and others have taken in the Trump era. All three make regular appearances on cable news shows or on Twitter to criticize Trump or raise alarm bells about his actions.
In the midst of an unusual presidency, national security scholars see an unprecedented wave of public commentary from a class of former officials who have traditionally shunned the political spotlight.
There is a powerful norm within the intelligence community—and a similar school of thought within the U.S. military—that national security leaders should confine themselves to professional intelligence issues and avoid the political morass. The intelligence community is tasked with providing policymakers with the information they need to make decisions; the military is tasked with informing and carrying out the decisions of policymakers. Neither of those are intended to be political functions, scholars say. Gen. George C. Marshall, who served as Army chief of staff under President Roosevelt and Defense Secretary under President Truman, famously refused to vote as a matter of principle. This week, Defense Secretary James Mattis said that it is “wrong” for a retired general or admiral “to come out in a public position supporting one candidate or another.”
“There is no precedent,” said Amy Zegart, a co-director of the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University who studies the intelligence community. “Since 1947, since the CIA was created, we have never had a moment in history where so many senior intelligence officials have spoken out so publicly about their concerns with the president.”
Zegart suggests that three separate trends are contributing to the sudden rash of public commentary from officials like Brennan, Clapper and Hayden.
Compared to 20 years ago, she says, sitting senior intelligence leaders have taken on a public persona that they did not historically assume while in office. They appear on Sunday talk shows, for example—once an anathema to the secretive community.
Secondly, Zegart says, highly classified materials are increasingly being declassified in real time, for a variety of purposes. (She uses the example of a 2007 intelligence assessment on Iran’s nuclear capability that found that Tehran had halted its nuclear weapons program several years previous, at a time when the George W. Bush administration was urging a harder line on the rogue regime.)
Finally, Zegart says, there is the obvious reality that former intelligence officials appear to feel increasingly compelled to speak publicly.
“This is an unnatural act for a career intelligence officer, so it’s worth asking: ‘Why are they taking this unnatural act?’” Zegart said.
For some former national security officials, like David Kris, the former assistant attorney general for national security under President Obama and the founder of the consulting firm Culper Partners LLC, the trend is an obvious reaction to Trump’s norm-busting presidency.
“Forget former officials and whatever norms govern them. The pressures that this president’s behavior is creating are affecting even current uniformed service members at the highest levels,” Kris said, citing forceful statements from senior military leaders denouncing far-right extremists in the wake of violence in Charlottesville, Va. last year. The statements did not mention Trump by name, but the implicit rebuke seemed unmistakeable after Trump insisted that “both sides” were to blame.
Public displays of political concern from even former uniformed officers have drawn criticism in the past. Former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, wrote a terse op-ed in 2016 condemning Retired Marine Gen. John Allen and retired Army Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn for their respective appearances at the the Democratic and Republican conventions, snapping that “the military is not a political prize.”
“Politicians should take the advice of senior military leaders but keep them off the stage. The American people should not wonder where their military leaders draw the line between military advice and political preference. And our nation’s soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines should not wonder about the political leanings and motivations of their leaders,” Dempsey wrote.
But the norm is even stronger in the intelligence community, Zegart said.
“Historically, senior military officers have held political office and we don’t think anything of that,” she said. While former military officers have achieved the nation’s highest office, intelligence officials have not, with the notable exception of President George H.W. Bush, who was CIA director.
“I think there is a silent warrior norm in the intelligence community that intelligence officials do not expect to be named, they do not expect to come forward publicly. There’s a reason why the wall of honor at CIA has unnamed stars even years later,” she said. “It’s a Title 10, Title 50 distinction.”
Republicans on Capitol Hill argued this week that the former intel chief had “overstepped” in his public commentary, defending the decision to strip him of his clearance. Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., said in a statement that if Brennan’s claims about Trump’s involvement in Russian election meddling were “purely political and based on conjecture, the president has full authority to revoke his security clearance as head of the Executive Branch.”
The big, unanswered question, both Kris and Zegart said, is whether former national security officials taking prominent public positions on the policies and politics of a new administration is the new normal—or an aberration under Trump. Zegart said regretfully that she expects to see more former officials opining on national television, citing lucrative contracts as analysts for cable news shows.
Kris argued that it will depend on who sits in the White House in two or six years.
“If the next President of the United States is as much of an outlier and norm-buster as President Trump, then I would expect that the next generation of senior former officials will continue to speak out against such behavior,” he said. Conversely, if Trump’s successor is “less than two standard deviations from the mean, then I think former officials will conduct themselves in accordance with traditional norms.”
“We don’t know what’s going to happen if and when the fever breaks.”