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Critics blast revoking of John Brennan's clearance as "authoritarian"

Last Updated Aug 15, 2018 5:58 PM EDT

Critics of President Trump's decision to revoke former CIA Director John Brennan's security clearance as setting a dangerous precedent. 

White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders announced in Wednesday's press briefing that the president had decided to revoke Brennan's clearance because he had allegedly made untrue statements and exhibited "erratic conduct and behavior" in public. Sanders also threatened that the administration is considering revoking the clearances of a number of other current and former intelligence officials. 

Brennan himself called the action a part of the president's broader effort to "suppress freedom of speech" and "punish critics." 

"This action is part of a broader effort by Mr. Trump to suppress freedom of speech & punish critics," he tweeted. "It should gravely worry all Americans, including intelligence professionals, about the cost of speaking out. My principles are worth far more than clearances. I will not relent."

The president's decision didn't settle well with former intelligence officials and Democratic members of congressional intelligence committees, including former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. Clapper was one of the handful of individuals Sanders said may lose his clearance.

"Will the republic stand or fall on whether John retains his access to classified information, or mine or any others that were named? Of course not," Clapper said on CNN Wednesday. "The larger issue here, to me, throughout, has been infringement on First Amendment rights, and I think people ought to think seriously about that."

Former Secretary of State John Kerry suggested the president is "putting personal petty politics ahead of patriotism and national security," and said such behavior is expected in a "banana republic," not the U.S.

"This is putting personal petty politics ahead of patriotism and national security, end of story. You expect this banana republic behavior in the kind of countries that the State Department warns Americans not to travel to, but not at home in the USA," Kerry tweeted Wednesday.

Sen. Mark Warner, the Democratic vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the announcement about Brennan's security clearance might distract from negative news stories about Mr. Trump, but warned against politicizing the security clearance process. The White House has been fending off criticism from former White House aide Omarosa Manigault Newman, who has made various claims about her time working for the president — including that she has tapes of conversations in the West Wing.

"This might be a convenient way to distract attention, say from a damaging news story or two," Warner tweeted. "But politicizing the way we guard our nation's secrets just to punish the president's critics is a dangerous precedent."

Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, also suggested the president is simply trying to distract from the Omarosa news, calling the revocation a "petty, authoritarian, and non-presidential impulse."

"Abusing the powers of the Office of the President to punish and silence critics, and to change the subject from the damaging disclosures in a new tell-all book: What a petty, authoritarian, and non-presidential impulse," Leahy tweeted.

Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, went so far as to say the president's revocation is "unlawful."

"In adding John Brennan to his enemies list, Trump demonstrates again how deeply insecure and vindictive he is — two character flaws dangerous in any president. An enemies list is ugly, undemocratic and un-American," Schiff tweeted. "I also believe this action to silence a critic is unlawful."

The CIA has declined to comment.

David Priess, former career CIA analyst, said he was unaware of a valid reason or any precedent for revoking clearances.

"It's dangerous, because the president is ratcheting up tension with his intelligence community," he said. And it's embarrassing, because it's based not on any national security imperative but instead on a childish attitude of, "you said something I don't like, so I'll punch you."

Others had a more nuanced view.

"The clearances issued to former directors Brennan, Hayden and others are only for the government's benefit – it ensures continuity and that they can respond when needed to weigh in on matters of national security," said John Sipher, who spent nearly three decades in the CIA's clandestine service. "The CIA director or DNI should speak up on this one."

"That said, I do wish Brennan would refrain from making personal attacks," Sipher continued. "He only helps Trump when he makes them."

CBS News' Olivia Gazis contributed to this report.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to former Secretary of State John Kerry as John Kelly. The story has been updated to reflect that. 

  • Kathryn Watson

    Kathryn Watson is a politics reporter for CBS News Digital.