The director of the CIA is keeping her mouth shut while her boss, President Donald Trump, punishes her predecessor, John Brennan, for his vociferous criticism. It’s an act that even a man who famously clashed with Brennan and his CIA calls “appalling.”
Brennan, a career CIA official whom Barack Obama made the agency’s director over substantial criticism from the political left, saw Trump take away his security clearance on Wednesday. Disconnected from any allegation, let alone evidence, that Brennan abused his clearance, Trump’s maneuver struck many intelligence observers and former officials as a naked power play: a message to the intelligence community that the president expects their personal loyalty.
But CIA Director Gina Haspel, whose nomination Brennan very publicly supported and whose integrity Brennan vouched for, is remaining silent, even as the White House suggests that the same fate may await other intelligence veterans who consider Trump a danger to the country.
Asked if Haspel approved of Trump stripping Brennan of his security clearance and if she had known about it or advised the president on the issue in advance, CIA spokesman Tim Barrett told The Daily Beast only: “CIA does not comment on individual security clearances.” He declined to address The Daily Beast’s follow-up questions.
But while Haspel is dodging the issue, Brennan—or, rather, the principle that the intelligence agencies ought not to be recast in a president’s image—has support from an unlikely quarter: the Senate investigator who, despite Brennan’s efforts and his attempts at reprisal, exhumed the CIA’s post-9/11 history of torture.
To Daniel J. Jones, a former FBI counterterrorism analyst and Senate intelligence committee staffer, Brennan is no #resistance hero—he is an ex-CIA director who went to extraordinary lengths to cover up torture, even putting Jones himself in significant political and legal jeopardy. But Jones told The Daily Beast there is a far greater issue at stake than Brennan’s personal clearance.
“There is no doubt that President Trump’s revocation of Mr. Brennan’s security clearance is designed to send a message about the costs of dissent,” said Jones, now the president of the Penn Quarter Group, a consultancy.
“We may have had our differences, but staying quiet when the rights of our fellow citizens is abrogated is not an option,” continued Jones. “I hope others will raise their voices, too. If not now, when?”
Since leaving office, Brennan has been an unsparing critic of Trump’s, repeatedly calling the president unfit for office and intimating—without providing evidence, which is disturbing given Brennan’s intimate acquaintance with secret information—that Russia has suborned the president.
Yet Trump and Brennan appeared to share an ally: Haspel.
Brennan said in March that Haspel is an “exceptionally well respected professional within CIA,” when he was part of a surprisingly public push by former intelligence leaders to install Haspel, who like Brennan was a career CIA officer.
To the Washington Post, Brennan asserted that Haspel was an independent voice: “I have great confidence that Gina Haspel has the requisite background and the professional credentials to be able to speak truth to power, irrespective of the policy druthers of the person in the Oval Office.” The White House was happy to promote Brennan’s support for Haspel when it appeared her confirmation was in political jeopardy last spring.
Haspel’s silence contrasts with other current and former intelligence officials. Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, publicly reiterated support for the intelligence agencies after Trump, in Helsinki, accepted Vladimir Putin’s bald-faced denial of interference in the 2016 election. (Haspel was silent then as well.) James Comey, whom Trump fired as FBI director, tweeted after Brennan lost his clearance that “once again this president is sending a message that he will punish people who disagree with him and reward those who praise him.… We are each responsible for what we say as well as for our silence.”
Retired CIA chief Michael Hayden, however, defended Haspel's silence.
“Gina needs to concentrate on blocking and tackling,” he said in answer to a Daily Beast question at an event at the University Club in Washington, D.C. “That’s the advantage of having a DNI…. Whatever else you want to say about the creation of a Director of National Intelligence, it creates a shield for the three-letter directors to just go about their basic tasks. This is a far more difficult question for Director Coats, and I must admit I have been very impressed the way the director has handled himself. He doesn’t go out and pick a big fight... but when he’s asked a question, he answers it very candidly.”
During her confirmation hearing, Haspel dismissed questions about Trump seeking her personal loyalty as “hypothetical,” even though Trump infamously asked Comey for precisely that.
As a senior CIA operations officer, Haspel oversaw the brutal torture of at least one man, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, in a black site she ran; and, though her official record remains classified, very likely dozens of others. Brennan was a key voice arguing, successfully, to President Barack Obama that Obama ought not to hold the CIA accountable for torture—a fateful decision that permitted Haspel to rise to her directorship.
That position would come to define Brennan’s tenure as CIA director. He oversaw and was involved in an unprecedented effort to suppress the Senate Intelligence Committee’s voluminous years-long effort to expose CIA torture. That effort had ominous implications for Jones, who was the committee’s lead investigator on torture: The agency secretly accessed his work on a shared agency-Senate computer drive, something committee chairwoman Senator Dianne Feinstein said had sparked a constitutional crisis. Later, one of Brennan’s top lawyers frivolously referred Jones for criminal prosecution to the Justice Department, something prosecutors promptly declined.
In an additional irony behind stripping Brennan’s security clearance, Trump’s statement justifying it referred to the Jones episode, saying that Brennan “denied to Congress that CIA officials under his supervision had improperly accessed the computer files of congressional staffers.” It was a pretext reminiscent of Trump initially and deceitfully claiming that he fired Comey because of Comey’s treatment of Hillary Clinton.
Jones, a central figure in a clash over torture that saw Brennan disgrace himself, looked past Brennan and toward more fundamental issues.
“Remember, it’s common for intelligence officials to return to work in the intelligence community as private contractors after their retirement. For these individuals, if you lose your clearance, you lose your job,” Jones noted.
“Revoking Mr. Brennan’s clearance, without any evidence that he has mishandled classified information, is beyond worrying," Jones added. “Revoking Mr. Brennan’s clearance merely because he is engaged in constitutionally-protected free speech is appalling.”
—with additional reporting by Kimberly Dozier