In the latest installment of the Trump saga, the President has seized upon his power to approve or withdraw security clearances for government employees to leave a former head of the CIA, John Brennan, without one, and announcing his intention to deprive a host of other former high level government employees of theirs.
‘Clearances’ are documents issued by the FBI to all government employees who are expected to be exposed to ‘classified’ material, that is documents considered to require protection from ‘foreign’ eyes for security reasons. They come in several levels, corresponding to those attributed to political documents ranging from ‘classified’, to ‘secret’ , ‘top secret’ and beyond, and are considered useful even after retirement of high level people so that their successors can consult them.
People can only be granted a security clearance following extensive investigation by the FBI of where they have lived and worked, who they may have interacted with, and whether he/she could be subject to blackmail by anyone they may have encountered. (This is because the US has a ton of mainly military secrets that it wants to keep even its allies from discovering.)
When I was investigated after being hired by President Carter’s Assistant Secretary for Educational and Cultural Affairs (in charge, among other things of the Fulbright Program that brings high-level political and cultural ‘opinion-makers’ from all over the world to discover the superiority of the ‘American way of life’), I had to sit in a room without windows for eight hours while one agent asked me questions and the other observed my reactions. At that time, in the late seventies, the fact that I had lived for years in both Western and Eastern European countries, caused the FBI a great deal of angst. So much so that, although they found no evidence of my having participated in ‘dangerous’ organizations and even though my work would probably never expose me to classified documents, they really didn’t want to deliver me a clearance. (The matter was eventually resolved in my favor because the head of security at the State Department failed to solicit the head of personnel’s authorization to subject me to a lie detector test, which I passed.)
With all the high stakes events that go on daily across the globe, you would not expect dozens of current and former security officials to take time off to sign a protest against Trump’s abuse of ‘clearance’ power — or that John Brennan would be considering taking the President to court in what would be a landmark case. Yet the press is comparing the list of people Trump is considering depriving of their security clearances to former President Richard Nixon’s ‘enemies list’ and his break-in of the Democratic Party Headquarters in Washington’s upscale Watergate building in 1972 (which ultimately led to his resignation).
This makes me wonder whether in the political science lexicon there is a word to describe a polity in which suspicion, investigations and an unusually elaborate system of laws play a determining role. There have been a number of terms to describe the American system and its military-industrial complex. But since ‘Watergate’, it would appear that the legal tool-kit — and attitudes toward investigations across the board — have evolved in a very worrying direction.
Currently this is partly due to the relationship between Trump family businesses — in particular those located in foreign countries — and the presence of his daughter Ivanka and her husband, Jared Kushner as paid White House advisors, which could give them access to secret information which could create a ‘conflict of interest’ as well as a security threat. Kushner was originally charged by the President with finding a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem, however this turned out to be mission impossible when the FBI decided that it could not, in good conscience, deliver him even the lowest security clearance.
It had recently come to light that while he was working on his father-in-law’s campaign, Kushner was desperately seeking cash to bail him out of a bad building investment: Immediately what runs through any FBI — or journalist’s — mind is: what state secrets might Kushner consciously or not have disclosed to the Qatari bankers he approached, which ultimately caused President Trump to join joined the Saudi-led campaign against that tiny country for its ties to Iran?
Although the United States raised itself up on the conviction that ‘What’s good for Ford Motors is good for America’, there has never been a President whose past has been solely devoted to multi-million dollars ‘deals’. (The recommended path to a political career has traditionally been the law…) Aside from the fact that the Trump Empire makes money when foreign dignitaries stay at Trump hotels, in particular the one in Washington, the President put his two sons, Don Jr and Eric, who could benefit from dinner-table political talk with their father, in charge of the family’s vast empire.
While the Trump family is a political aberration, these recent events suggest that the American government is actually far from having a free hand in foreign policy, but must abide by the decisions of professionals whose expertise is limited to investigations.
Deena Stryker is an international expert, author and journalist that has been at the forefront of international politics for over thirty years, exlusively for the online journal “New Eastern Outlook”.