The media is going crazy about the fact that Donald Trump revoked the security clearance of former CIA chief John Brennan. Trump has been criticized by a number of senior former intelligence and military professionals. The media has particularly emphasized the letter by retired Adm. William McRaven, who was the Navy Seal commander. I particularly look up to former CIA chiefs Robert Gates and William Webster, who wrote to support Brennan.
More than them, however, I look up to World War II General George Marshall, who went on to be Secretary of State and namesake of the Marshall Plan. As General Petraeus said in this interview with the Armed Forces Journal, General Marshall did not vote, because he felt that even the slightest degree of political participation would compromise his professional independence and judgment. In this article, General Petraeus said he had not voted since he was a major general.
Of course, none of the people signing these letters was an active duty officer. Nevertheless, the non-political position taken by Marshall and other conscientious officers illustrates the importance of nonpartisanship among the military and other public servants. If these officers feel so strongly about an issue that they cannot continue to serve, then they have to leave the service. This is what happened to the State Department’s Foreign Service during the first year of the Trump administration under Secretary of State Tillerson. The Foreign Service lost many of its senior officers.
The US has had a number of military presidents, starting with George Washington, but by and large they have retired and gone through the traditional political process. One exception to this military deference to the political system may be General Douglas MacArthur. MacArthur appeared to defy President Truman’s orders during the Korean War. When he tried to appeal to Congress and the people over Truman’s head. The firing led to a Constitutional crisis; Truman’s popularity fell to 22 percent, but he prevailed and MacArthur faded away.
Compared to George Marshall’s non-partisanship and MacArthur’s firing, the removal of John Brennan’s security clearance is nothing. Brennan appeared to be a strong supporter of Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party while he was still head of the CIA. His partisanship, combined with the accusations of Russian interference in the US election placed a huge cloud over the CIA and the rest of the intelligence community from President Trump’s perspective. He thought that the Democrats were trying to invalidate his election and that the CIA was helping them. Pompeo’s terms as head of the CIA seems to have helped close the rift between Trump and the CIA, but tensions remain because of the continuing Mueller investigation. Brennan, who has accused Trump of treason, clearly wants to see Trump removed from office. We’ll see whether that happens. Trump certainly has no obligation to help Brennan remove him from office.