President Donald Trump

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Former CIA Official: If Trump Threatens Security Clearance, 'It's Not Going To Stop Me From Speaking Out'

August 17, 2018 - 6:53 pm
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WASHINGTON (WCBS 880/AP) -- President Donald Trump says he may revoke the security clearance of more intellignce officials, including that of former Justice Department official Bruce Ohr – whose wife worked for Fusion GPS, the firm that helped produce the dossier on Trump’s alleged ties to Russia.

Former CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell, now a CBS News Senior National Security Contributor, said if Trump also takes away his clearance or threatens to do so, it will not stop him from speaking out.

Earlier this week, Trump yanked the security clearance of former CIA Director John Brennan, saying he had to do "something" about the "rigged" federal probe of Russian election interference. Critics have cast it as an act of political vengeance.

Morell said the Trump administration had initially blamed the revocation on Brennan’s behavior when he was with the CIA, but he said there is “no truth to that whatsoever.”

“I think at the end of the day, this is all about the Russia investigation. This is all about the president’s fears about what the special counsel may find,” Morell said. “And I think quite frankly, the president is trying to intimidate people into silence. I think that’s exactly what’s going on here. There’s no national security reason to revoke John Brennan’s clearance, and I think it was just sent a signal to intimidate others.”

Morell was among more than a dozen former national intelligence officials who put out a letter saying Brennan’s security revocation was “inappropriate and deeply regrettable.” As to the question of whether his own security clearance could be revoked, Morell said, “It’s not going to stop me from speaking out.”

“You know, I’m on CBS regularly commenting about national security and foreign policy affairs. There are times when I’m supportive of the president and his policies, like in Afghanistan, and there’s times when I am critical, like his Iranian policy. And no matter what he does with my clearance, and no matter what he does with threats regarding my clearance, I’m not going to stop speaking my mind,” he said.

Morell explained that security clearances are for the benefit of the government, not special privileges for their recipients.

“I don’t go into the agency to get briefings, and to read material. That doesn’t happen. What I do is I make myself available to my former colleagues – both at the agency and elsewhere – who can call me in, ask me to come in, and discuss issues with me help me help them think them through. That’s what I do. I could not do that without a clearance,” he said.

Morell noted that since leaving government, he has served pro bono on two government commissions – which he would not be able to do without security clearance.

“So I have not made a dime or a nickel since I left government because I have clearance, but if the government has certainly benefited from it, and if the president were to take away mine, the government would lose that benefit,” he said.

On Friday, Trump said he suspected he would “very quickly” revoke Ohr’s security clearance and tweeted that it was a “disgrace” for Ohr to be in the Justice Department.

Ohr has come under Republican scrutiny for his contacts to Glenn Simpson, co-founder of Fusion GPS. The opposition research firm hired former British spy Christopher Steele during the 2016 presidential campaign to compile the dossier on Trump and his Russia ties.

Ohr's wife, Nellie, worked for Fusion GPS during the campaign — something Trump has tweeted about to highlight his assertions of political bias behind the Russia investigation.

Many former U.S. security officials on Thursday issued scathing rebukes to Trump for moving against Brennan. Trump's admission that he acted out of frustration with the Russia probe underscored his willingness to use his executive power to fight back against an investigation he sees as a threat to his presidency. Legal experts said the dispute may add to the evidence being reviewed by special counsel Robert Mueller.

The only question remaining is whether the collusion amounts to a "constituted criminally liable conspiracy," Brennan wrote.

Later Thursday, the retired Navy admiral who oversaw the raid that killed Osama bin Laden called Trump's moves "McCarthy-era tactics." Writing in The Washington Post, William H. McRaven said he would "consider it an honor" if Trump would revoke his clearance, as well.

"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.

That was followed late Thursday by the joint letter from 15 former senior intelligence officials – including Morell. They said it "has nothing to do with who should and should not hold security clearances — and everything to do with an attempt to stifle free speech."

The signees included seven former CIA directors, six former CIA deputy directors and two former national intelligence directors, James Clapper and retired Navy Adm. Denny Blair. Clapper and former CIA Director Michael Hayden have appeared on a White House list of people who may also have their security clearances revoked.

Then on Friday, 60 former CIA officials issued their own statement, joining a chorus of opposition from the intelligence community to Trump's decisions to threaten to or actually pull clearances. They said former government officials have a right to express unclassified views on national security issues without fear of being punished for doing so.

They said they did not necessarily concur with all the opinions expressed by Brennan, or the way in which he expressed them. But they said they believe the "country will be weakened if there is a political litmus test applied before seasoned experts are allowed to share their views."

Trump on Wednesday openly tied his decision to strip Brennan of his clearance — and threaten nearly a dozen other former and current officials — to the ongoing investigation into Russian election meddling and possible collusion with his campaign. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Trump again called the probe a "rigged witch hunt" and said "these people led it!"

"So I think it's something that had to be done," he said.

Attorneys said the revocation appeared to be within the president's authority. But they noted the power play also could be used to reinforce a case alleging obstruction of justice, following the president's firing of former FBI Director James Comey and his repeated tweets calling for the investigation to end.

Patrick Cotter, a former assistant U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of New York and a longtime white-collar defense attorney, said that while a prosecutor could argue that Trump's targeting of clearances was intended as a warning that "if you contribute to, participate in, support the Russia probe and I find out about it, I'm going to punish you," it is likely not obstruction in itself.

But, he said the move would be a "powerful piece of evidence" for prosecutors as part of a pattern to demonstrate an intent to use presidential power in connection with the probe.

(© 2018 WCBS 880. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)