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Former CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell Discusses Security Clearances

Aug 17, 2018
Originally published on August 20, 2018 1:29 pm
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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

President Trump is expressing no regret for targeting former CIA Director John Brennan this week. He revoked Brennan's security clearance on Wednesday. He threatened then to yank the clearances of nine other officials. And today, he doubled down on one of them, Justice Department official Bruce Ohr.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I think Bruce Ohr is a disgrace. I suspect I'll be taking it away very quickly. I think that Bruce Ohr is a disgrace with his wife, Nellie. For him to be in the Justice Department and to be doing what he did, that is a disgrace.

KELLY: The president speaking there to reporters as he left the White House today on route to a New York fundraiser. And we should know Bruce Ohr has links to the Russia investigation. This is not the first time the president has targeted him and his wife, including this week on Twitter. Well, I want to bring in Michael Morell, former acting director of the CIA. Mr. Morell, welcome back to the program.

MICHAEL MORELL: Thank you so much, Mary Louise. Good to be with you.

KELLY: I have to start by asking, do you have any insight into why the president appears to be focused on Bruce Ohr? I mentioned he's tied up in the Russia investigation in some way. Is this a case of all roads leading back to the Russia probe?

MORELL: So I don't know any specifics, Mary Louise, but it does seem to be Russia related. When the White House first pulled John Brennan's clearances, they had a number of different reasons that had to do with John's purported ill behavior as CIA director. And then 24 hours later, the president said it had to do with the Russia investigation.

KELLY: He gave an interview to The Wall Street Journal in which he suggested this was because he didn't like the role Brennan had played in the early days of the Russia probe.

MORELL: Exactly, so it does seem to be in the president's mind that this is all about Russia.

KELLY: Well, let me ask you this. You, and almost all of the other living former CIA directors and deputy directors, issued a joint statement yesterday, in which you argued that revoking John Brennan's clearance is an attempt to stifle free speech - your words. Also, you mentioned that none of you has ever seen the approval or removal of security clearance being used as a political tool before. Is that right?

MORELL: That's absolutely correct. You know, I worked at the CIA for 33 years. For seven of those years, I was on the CIA leadership team where one of my responsibilities was to make final determinations on the revocation of security clearances. And it was always - somebody had done something wrong either legally or something of questionable behavior. But I never saw it done for political reasons. To me and to us as a group, the signees of the letter, it was unprecedented.

KELLY: How unprecedented is it for quite this many former heads of the CIA to come together and say - well, say anything at all publicly, I guess - but particularly a statement rebuking the president of the United States?

MORELL: I've never seen that before. And quite frankly, we disagreed over the role that John has played since he has left government - Some of us believing that it's appropriate in a democracy for people to speak their minds and others who believe that John, as a former CIA director, should take a lower profile.

KELLY: Let me ask you about one other former official speaking out, retired Admiral William McRaven. This is the man who oversaw the bin Laden raid. He wrote yesterday in the Washington Post that he would consider it an honor if the president would also revoke his security clearance so that he could add his name to the list of men and women speaking up against the Trump presidency. What did you make of that when you read it?

MORELL: I saw it, Mary Louise, as hugely significant.

KELLY: Why?

MORELL: He is the least partisan, least political person I know. He is one of the most patriotic, one of the most dedicated. He has never spoken out politically before. And to have him do that, I think, is very, very significant.

KELLY: Who do you think Admiral McRaven's intended audience is here?

MORELL: The president. It was a letter to the president - dear Mr. President. I don't think he was trying to create more opposition among former military officers or current military officers. I think he just felt the need to speak his mind.

KELLY: And this is a case, as often happens with people with high-level security clearances, where it's the retired folks who are speaking out - sometimes expressing the views of people who are still operating within the government and can't publicly speak.

MORELL: Although, I would say that, in my experience in the CIA, the politics watches over you. You have views like any American citizen. But when you go to work every day, you leave your politics in the parking lot.

KELLY: I know. And I know former CIA officials often make that point. However, we're living in an era where it's hard to argue that intelligence hasn't gotten incredibly politicized. Just witness this week.

MORELL: But let me tell you. I was at the CIA today for a retirement ceremony. And believe it or not. This issue of John Brennan's clearance never came up.

KELLY: Really?

MORELL: Nobody ever raised the letter that we all signed with me. So it really is a special institution in that way.

KELLY: That's Michael Morell, former acting director of the Central Intelligence Agency. He now hosts the "Intelligence Matters" podcast. Thanks so much.

MORELL: You're welcome, Mary Louise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.