Insecurity and security clearances

I was very privileged to work in the Canadian intelligence community for more than 3 decades.  My career spanned 17 years with CSE – Communications Security Establishment, Canada’s signals intelligence agency – and 15 with CSIS – the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.  There was not a day when I could not wait to get to the office as I was exposed to fascinating information, interesting challenges, great colleagues and a sense that what we were collectively doing for Canada and Canadians was important.  To cite but one small example, when you are part of a team that helps to prevent a terrorist attack that is indeed a good day.

In order to have those opportunities I had to go through the security clearance process.  To show how old I am and how long ago I received my initial OK to work in a classified environment, I was granted the top clearance possible in Canada – TS or Top Secret – in three months: it takes a helluva lot longer these days to get that level, I can assure you.  On top of that, I occasionally was authorised to work with really, really sensitive information and that necessitated an even higher clearance.  All in all pretty cool stuff I found.

Those of us who got access to this kind of intelligence took our responsibilities seriously.  We were told what the consequences of security breaches were (remember ‘Loose lips sink ships’?) and we made sure that we shared our knowledge only with those who held similar security levels.  Failing to do so could mean loss of the clearance, dismissal, or, in the worst case scenario, criminal charges.  None of those happened to me.

In a normal world then, having one’s security clearance yanked occurs in very narrow circumstances.  These boil down to two: the end of a need to know (my clearance was taken away when I retired) or violation of the conditions under which the clearance was granted in the first place.  Note that I said ‘normal’: what is transpiring south of the border in the US is anything but.

US President Trump just revoked the security clearance of former CIA Director John BrennanHe is also threatening to do the same to other former high ranking US intelligence officials.  A move of this magnitude must mean that Mr. Brennan disclosed some very sensitive intelligence and hence broke the conditions of his access.  Alas, the truth is much more mundane and much more attuned to an all too frequent event in America.  It appears that the president took this move because Mr. Brennan is one of his most vocal critics.  That’s it.  We are dealing with a man who takes drastic action when someone crosses him.  How sad is that?

This is nothing short of a travesty.  Aside from the problem in allowing the US president to wield this power (I am pretty sure the Canadian Prime Minister cannot do this, but I may be wrong), why in heaven’s name is the government OK with this?  The move by Mr. Trump smacks of the actions taken by tinpot dictators to sideline their critics (will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?) and is beneath the office he purports to occupy.  Ergo, is the US on the road to becoming a tinpot dictatorship?

I am not a ‘slippery slope’ kinda guy but this development is worrisome.  A man like Mr. Brennan, who served his country admirably for almost as long as I served mine, has been punished for exercising a whole bunch of freedoms: speech, thought, the right to criticise or call a spade a spade (or a traitor a traitor), etc.   I have a hard time believing that this is taking place in the US and not in North Korea.  Then again the President said he trusts Russian President Putin’s denial of interfering in the 2016 elections over the assessment of a gazillion US intelligence agencies so perhaps I should not be surprised.

There is a backlash to this ridiculous decision, as there should be, but also support by Mr. Trump’s base.  As with virtually everything else in the US partisanship now overrules common sense, the right thing to do, the law, etc.  In the end I feel for my US intelligence colleagues who toil to keep their country safe.  When the ‘commander in chief’ – was there ever a president who deserved this title less? – can essentially fire anyone who goes against him, where does this end?  Nowhere good I can tell you.



By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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