Leon Panetta warns security clearances could be used as "political tool" by Trump

Former CIA Director and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta is warning that President Trump's decision to revoke the security clearances of top intelligence officials who've spoken out against the president's policies sets a dangerous precedent for the president to retaliate against those he disagrees with.

"Security clearances are critical to our national security and decisions regarding security clearances ought to be based on national security issues. Our concern now is that security clearances are going to be used as a political tool to go after people that the president doesn't agree with or issues that the president may not agree with and we think that undermines the importance of security clearances particularly when it comes to national security," Panetta told CBS' "Face the Nation" moderator Margaret Brennan in an interview this week. 

Panetta was one of over a dozen former intelligence chiefs to sign onto a joint statement criticizing the president's order revoking the security clearance of former CIA Director John Brennan. The statement praised Brennan's "objectivity and credibility."  The White House announced in the end of July that it was "exploring" the possibility of revoking the security clearances of several former intelligence officials who have criticized Mr. Trump. 

Panetta suggested that Mr. Trump is using the revocation of clearances to distract attention from particularly bad news stories coming out of the often beleaguered White House, calling it a "misuse of the office of the presidency."

The former intelligence chief explained that while Mr. Trump has the authority as president to revoke clearances, he's also limited by an executive order signed by President Bill Clinton, updated by President Bush and followed by President Obama. 

The order "makes very clear that when it comes to the revocation of a security clearance that it has to be based on national security issues not the politics of somebody, not what that person has said, not how they dress, not how they look, but based on national security issues," he said. 

Panetta suggested that Mr. Trump's move now calls into question whether or not he followed the executive order and provided due process to those whose clearances are in jeopardy. 

"This president has to abide by that executive order unless he's prepared to change it. That executive order lays out a process for revoking security clearances. And this president is not above the law, he's required to follow that executive order," he said. 

Panetta added, "Yes, the President of the United States has power, but that power is limited by the Constitution and by the checks and balances in our system. I think the president has to adhere to those kinds of requirements.

  • Emily Tillett

    Emily Tillett is a politics reporter and video editor for CBS News Digital