For Spies Emerging From the Shadows, a War With Trump Carries Risks

President Trump has revoked the former C.I.A. Director John Brennan’s security clearance. The White House said it’s considering pulling the security clearances for other former top officials, as well, many of whom have been critical of the president. Here’s what they’ve said.

WASHINGTON — President Trump presides over the largest and most expensive intelligence apparatus in the world, but he often seems to view his spies as a phantom army opposing him.

So he has waged a battle against the people he sees as their public proxies — former officials who have rebuked him in opinion articles, in books, in strident Twitter posts and on cable television. On Monday, the White House said it was considering pulling the security clearances for a half-dozen of them, prompting criticism that Mr. Trump was trying to use his power to silence high-profile critics.

But this extraordinary fight between an American president and his clandestine services also highlights a risk for current and former spies. For a community that has long cast itself as a nonpartisan truth-teller, it is in danger of being pulled into the political fray.

Their public criticism could cause long-term damage that extends beyond the Trump administration, especially if the intelligence gathered by the C.I.A. and other agencies comes to be seen as colored by politics or if officers are seen as pushing political agendas.

“The big concern is for the future,” said Dan Hoffman, a former C.I.A. officer who served in Russia, the Middle East and elsewhere. “Does the next president come in and say, ‘I don’t trust these people’?”

On Tuesday, Hogan Gidley, a White House spokesman, said Mr. Trump had “begun the mechanism” to remove security clearances from the six former officials who had criticized the president, including James R. Clapper Jr., the former director of national intelligence, and John O. Brennan, a former C.I.A. director.

“The president finds it extremely inappropriate for somebody to go on television under the perception of legitimacy, integrity and level false and baseless claims against another person without any evidence whatsoever,” Mr. Gidley said.

Mr. Hoffman appears regularly on Fox News, sometimes speaking supportively and sometimes more critically of Mr. Trump. He said there was no evidence that the former officers who are targets of Mr. Trump’s ire have exposed classified information or abused their clearances in any way, but he said he worries that the broadsides could prompt future presidents to question how much they should share with intelligence officials.

Former intelligence officials said they went through entire careers working closely with fellow officers and never knew their politics. The ethos of the C.I.A. and other intelligence agencies is that officers should look at the world as it is, assessing developments factually, and not through an ideological or political lens.

That outlook allows the intelligence agencies to serve administrations of both parties.

But Mr. Trump, at least judging from public comments, has made clear that he sees the agencies as rife with politicized bureaucrats who are part of a so-called deep state that is out to undermine him.

Those attacks are part of the reason former officials like Mr. Clapper and Mr. Brennan have repeatedly criticized the president. Both men were among the former officials said to be under consideration for losing their security clearances.

“Professional intelligence officers take it very personally when the institutions that they devoted their careers to come under attack,” said Mark M. Lowenthal, a former assistant director of the C.I.A. “The downside is that you are reinforcing the views of the people that really mistrust the intelligence community that there really is a deep state out to get the president.”

Mr. Lowenthal advised both of the former officers and the White House to reconsider their tactics and “tamp down the rhetoric.”

Neither appears likely to do so. Soon after Mr. Trump’s clarification last week that he trusts the assessments of his intelligence community on Russia’s election interference, he returned to Twitter to say that the meddling in the 2016 campaign was “a big hoax.”

Credit...Alex Wong/Getty Images

Former officers who have gone public with their disapproval of the president say they weighed the decision carefully.

“You are taught to stay away from the press,” said Steven L. Hall, a former chief of Russia operations at the C.I.A. “You are taught to say no more than you have to. You are taught to stay in the shadows. That is why it is the clandestine service.”

But Mr. Hall said he entered the fray because he felt Mr. Trump’s policy and diplomacy with Russia were deeply flawed, far more misguided than past attempts by presidents to reset relations with Moscow.

“If it weren’t Russia and weren’t how this president is dealing with Russia, I wouldn’t be on CNN and I wouldn’t be writing op-eds,” he said.

Former intelligence agency leaders keep their clearances for practical reasons, including to advise their successors. In past administrations, former leaders have returned to talk about new initiatives and offer wisdom.

But Mr. Brennan, Mr. Clapper and Michael V. Hayden, a former C.I.A. director in the George W. Bush administration also singled out by the White House over his criticism of Mr. Trump, are now seen as nearly untouchable by the agencies they served. The C.I.A. and other intelligence agencies have not felt comfortable briefing them or seeking their advice, former officials said.

If they are not getting briefings, other former officials said, there may be no reason for them to keep their clearance because they no longer have a “need to know.”

But no evidence has emerged that any of the former officials named by the White House have exploited their access or revealed secrets.

“The implication is by speaking publicly about national security policy, they are taking improper advantage of their knowledge, and I don’t think that is true,” said Steven Aftergood, a government secrecy specialist with the Federation of American Scientists.

The other former senior officials who were targeted were Susan Rice, the national security adviser to President Barack Obama; James B. Comey, the F.B.I. director fired by Mr. Trump last year; and Andrew G. McCabe, who was fired in March as deputy director of the F.B.I.

Mr. Trump’s focus on the clearances of a handful of top officials belies a larger, longstanding issue for the national security apparatus — the vast number of people who have access to government secrets. Nearly 4.1 million people hold security clearances, according to the most recent report by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

Though that is down from a high of 5.2 million in the 2013 fiscal year, Mr. Aftergood said that too many clearances make the system harder to keep secure and delay both new approvals and reviews of existing clearances.

As director of national intelligence, Mr. Clapper began the push to reduce the number of clearances. Mr. Aftergood said there is some evidence the reductions are slowing, and the population could be growing once more.

Tensions between the White House and the intelligence community are hardly new. President Richard M. Nixon deeply mistrusted the C.I.A. President Bill Clinton largely ignored his first C.I.A. director. During Mr. Bush’s tenure, the White House battled with the C.I.A. over intelligence assessments about the strength of the insurgency during the Iraq war.

It is not clear where the current fight between the intelligence agencies and Mr. Trump is heading. But Mr. Lowenthal said it had already done “a lot of damage.”

“Is it lasting damage? I would hope not,” he said. “But it isn’t done playing out.”

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