Burnett: This should upset all Americans

CNN's Erin Burnett says President Donald Trump's real witch hunt lies within his threat to punish the country's top former intelligence chiefs who disagree with him.

Posted: Jul 24, 2018 3:10 PM
Updated: Jul 24, 2018 3:21 PM

In recent years, the blurring of partisan politics and national security has been an increasing and troubling phenomenon in American public life. On Monday, it reached a new level when White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said that President Donald Trump is exploring "mechanisms" to revoke the security clearances of several former government officials who have been critical of Trump and his policies.

While the President may have the right to undertake such a review and, in the end, to deny continued access to classified information, the question remains -- at what cost to national security?

There are thousands of public servants who might not be actively fighting the good fight now within the executive branch, but sit on boards and commissions and continue to contribute to critical national security issues in this country.

Working on the front lines with Fortune 1000 companies to protect and defend their infrastructure from insider threats, cybercriminal syndicates and state-sponsored actors, I have leaned heavily upon the experiences and wisdom of many of our public servants who have worked for our recent presidents of both political parties. These public servants offer a point of view based on previous and sometimes continuing access to classified information that form critical institutional knowledge and insight, even if we disagree with their politics or recommendations.

Based on the fight ahead of us in the cyber domain alone, I shudder to think what it would be like not to have their wisdom at the ready.

That said, holding a security clearance in the United States is an honor and a responsibility. According to the Department of Defense, "The purpose of a security clearance is to determine whether a person is able and willing to safeguard classified national security information, based on his or her loyalty, character, trustworthiness, and reliability."

Additionally, having a clearance does not mean you have access to everything classified. Classified information is closely guarded and only released to individuals on a "need to know" basis -- in order to do their jobs in service to the US government.

Maintaining or having your clearance renewed is also not a right. There is an extensive process dictated by long standing presidential executive orders that is used to grant a clearance and renew security clearances. There are also modern day legal precedents that support the President's right to grant or revoke clearances, such as the 1988 Supreme Court case Department of the Navy v. Egan.

When someone leaves their post willingly and moves to another role where a clearance is required, they go through an extensive process to transfer that clearance to a new authority. If an individual leaves their post willingly and no longer requires a clearance, they will be read out of their programs and their clearance will lapse. If they are fired, their clearance is revoked. Under the guidelines regarding firings, this would mean that former FBI officials James Comey and Andrew McCabe, both of whom were fired, have already had their access to classified information terminated.

Nonetheless, all of those mentioned during the White House press briefing who are under consideration to have their clearances revoked have been on the front lines of the global cyber war. They speak from a combined century of experience, which our elected officials call upon frequently. In the last six months alone, the Senate Intelligence Committee has invited testimony from intelligence industry experts in more than half of their hearings. They can -- and I have seen them up close -- offer strategies that worked well and candidly discuss mistakes they have made.

We cannot afford to lose their institutional knowledge during this critical time, even if we disagree with their interpretations of intelligence or lament that they, too, have become politicized in these hyper-partisan times. Healthy and productive disagreements inside the intelligence community and its associated private sector partners have helped America build dynamic and strong cybersecurity strategies.

If there is one thing that should be indisputable in the wake of the cyberattacks conducted by Russia to influence the 2016 elections, it is that our nation is far from safe from cyberthreats. Our adversaries are continually probing our defenses, searching for vulnerabilities. This is the time to lock arms against the enemy, not to voluntarily disarm by taking our best, brightest and most experienced defenders off the battlefield.

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