Tensions between the U.S. intelligence community and the White House are ratcheting up, with President Donald Trump and former, high-ranking intelligence official locked in a heated war of words over security clearances.
Trump on Friday threw another punch in the ongoing battle, threatening to revoke the security clearance of a current Justice Department official and adding his decision to strip former CIA Director John Brennan of his security clearance has gotten a “tremendous response.”
Later in the day, former CIA officers punched back, with more than 60 signing a statement condemning what they described as a “political litmus test” for intelligence and security experts.
The subject of Trump’s ire Friday was the Justice Department’s Bruce Ohr, named earlier this week by the White House as one of nine former and current officials in danger of having their security clearances yanked.
Ohr has been under intense scrutiny for his contacts with Glenn Simpson, whose opposition research firm, Fusion GPS, was involved in producing the so-called Steele Dossier on Trump’s ties to Russia. For a time, Fusion GPS also employed Ohr’s wife.
“I suspect I’ll be taking it away very quickly,” Trump told reporters outside the White House regarding Ohr’s security clearance. “For him to be in the Justice Department and to be doing what he did, that is a disgrace.”
Trump also linked Ohr to special counsel Robert Mueller, calling the link “disqualifying” for Mueller. Mueller has been investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election, which Trump on Friday called “a rigged witch hunt.”
“You know that,” Trump told reporters. “Mr. Mueller is highly conflicted.”
Trump renewed his criticism of Brennan on Saturday, asking rhetorically on Twitter if anyone has "looked at the mistakes that John Brennan made while serving as CIA Director?" without elaborating, and labeled him as a "loudmouth, partisan, political hack who cannot be trusted with the secrets to our country!"
Growing outrage over revocation
Trump’s comments, along with the threat of stripping security clearances from other former and current officials, have sparked a growing outrage.
By early Friday, at least 15 former senior intelligence officials had also signed onto a statement criticizing what they call “the ill-considered and unprecedented remarks and actions by the White House regarding the removal of John Brennan’s security clearances.”
The officials, including former CIA directors Robert Gates, George Tenet and retired Gen. David Petraeus, said, “We have never before seen the approval or removal of security clearances used as a political tool as was done in this case. Beyond that, this action is quite clearly a signal to the former and current officials.”
They were joined late Friday by a group of 60 former CIA officers and analysts, some of whom said they did not agree with the opinions of former Director Brennan or how he expressed them, issued a statement of their own.
“[It] is our firm belief that the country will be weakened if there is a political litmus test applied before seasoned experts are allowed to share their views,” the statement said.
“All of us believe it is critical to protect classified information from unauthorized disclosure,” it continued. “But we believe equally strongly that former government officials have the right to express their unclassified views on what they see as critical national security issues without fear of being punished for doing so.”
Others have also taken a stand against the president’s actions.
Retired admiral's challenge
On Friday night, Democratic Senator Mark Warner, the vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said on social media, “I will be introducing an amendment next week to block the president from punishing and intimidating his critics by arbitrarily revoking security clearances.”
Retired Admiral William McRaven, who oversaw the operation to kill terrorist leader Osama bin Laden, on Thursday challenged Trump to revoke his security clearance, saying it would be an “honor.”
“Through your actions, 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,” McRaven wrote in a letter published by The Washington Post.
No comment from Haspel, Coats
Former CIA Director James Woolsey, who was part of Trump’s transition team before resigning, released his own statement Friday on the issue of security clearances.
While Woolsey did not mention either the president or Brennan by name, he called it “imperative” that those involved “use reasonable discourse in discussing and making their decisions.”
A source close to Woolsey told VOA that while the statement was carefully worded, it should be interpreted as a criticism of the president.
Neither current CIA Director Gina Haspel nor Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats have commented publicly on the security clearances.
But when asked about the decision to strip Brennan of his clearance, an official with knowledge of the process told VOA that senior intelligence officials “had no hand in this, no role in this,” despite reports from the White House to the contrary.
Fears of abuse of power
Since the White House announced the decision to strip former CIA Director Brennan of his security clearance, the number of former intelligence officials willing to publicly express concern has grown.
Some have called the president’s actions an abuse of power, while others say they fear the politicization of the security clearance process will serve to silence anyone in intelligence who has information the president might not like to hear.
“What we’re concerned about is the message and the precedent that it sets,” Mark Zaid, an attorney who specializes in national security matters, told VOA. “What this action shows is that anyone who has a politically different viewpoint to a sitting president of the United States is vulnerable.”
Those concerns were amplified Wednesday when Trump told The Wall Street Journal the reason he pulled Brennan’s security clearance was because of the role he believed Brennan played in prompting the Mueller investigation.
Despite the growing criticism, President Trump Friday rejected allegations he was using the issue of security clearances to intimidate or silence his critics.
“There’s no silencing (of critics). If anything, I’m giving them a bigger voice,” he said. “That’s OK with me, because I like taking on voices like that.”
VOA's Patsy Widakuswara contributed to this report.