Security Clearances: the Truth

Bill Neinast

This is not a big deal.  So why the big brouhaha?

All those former security officials throwing in their security clearances are not sacrificing anything and are not being honest.

A crucial fact has been overlooked or forgotten in this faked outrage over our President’s revocation of former CIA Director John Brennan’s security clearance.  The missing discussion is that there are two requirements or steps for access to classified material.

First, a proper security clearance is required.  Then, you have to have a need to know to get access to the classified material.  For example, even if  you have a proper clearance, you cannot legally peruse a classified document on someone’s desk when he steps out of the room.

I know.  I’ve been there.  I worked in an environment where classified documents were common and at some point got a Top Secret Clearance.

Early on, I was aware of only four classifications—personal, confidential, secret and top secret.  The first two were rather loosely handled, and I do not know if they exist anymore.

On my first assignment in the Pentagon, I began to see what I thought was the big stuff—secret and top secret material.

I remember well the first secret document to land on my desk.  It was a folder containing the Army personnel records of one Harry S. Truman.  That was almost 65 years ago, and I believe that classification is now expired or removed.

Then, on assignment in Germany, I learned that Top Secret was a relatively low classification in the hierarchy of security protection.

Top Secret, however, was all I needed for my assignment as Chief of the International Law Division of the Judge Advocate’s office in the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam where we furnished legal advice and services for both MACV and the U.S. Embassy in Saigon.  I did not have to prove my need for access to that material because most was addressed in some fashion to me personally.

Subsequently, when I was selected for the U.S. Army War College, I had to get a higher, special security clearance.  This required filling out another of those forms that traced my history all the way back to mother’s womb and verification by the FBI or other agency.

After the War College, I was assigned to the Pentagon as Chief of the Army’s Civil Litigation Division.  While there,  because of that special clearance, I was detailed as Counsel for General Alexander Haig in his appearance before a classified hearing of a Senate committee concerning his service as Chief of Staff for President Reagan.

So far as I know, my security clearance has not been revoked. It is probably buried somewhere in a dusty file in the Army archives.  Assuming that it is still in effect, I cannot think of any type of classified material that I could get my hands on because there is no way I could satisfy the need to know the requirement to view the material.

Director Brennan and those so eager to surrender their clearances would have had no problem in proving their need to know to receive classified information while they were still in office.  Most of the material coming into their offices would have been classified and prepared specifically for them.

Today, though, they are under different circumstances. So long as they are not called back into service or called to testify before a congressional committee, their security clearances are just nice mementoes.  

So here’s the perspective.

National security was not harmed and is not at risk because of the revocation of John Brennan’s security clearance.  It will not be adversely affected if the offers from all those other former security officials to surrender their clearances are accepted.

This is just another childish political action by our President.  Without question, though, it accomplished the real purpose.  Have you noticed that Omarosa’s tell-all book, Unhinged, is no longer the primary topic of the news media?




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