My Turn: Should Donald Trump remain in the intelligence loop?

For the Monitor
Published: 1/7/2021 6:40:26 AM
Modified: 1/7/2021 6:40:14 AM

Any election has the potential to create national security concerns. But two notable issues relating to national security have emerged following our presidential election as the United States approaches a transition in the White House.

The first deals with the New York Times report about the significant financial debt that President Donald Trump and his businesses seem to own. The second is whether the president can be trusted with the classified information he has already received – and whether he should continue to be in the intelligence and security briefings after leaving office, as has historically been the norm.

Former government officials, including past presidents, often stay in the intelligence loop. One reason for this is that former presidents frequently meet with foreign leaders and other dignitaries. Staying somewhat current on intelligence and security issues facilitates these discussions and also allows them to advise the current administration.

President Trump, however, presents a unique challenge to past practices. Financial instability is one of the biggest red flags for intelligence agencies in assessing an individual’s security concerns. This is because financial difficulties, including debt, can be used as leverage against the individual in a variety of ways, making them potentially susceptible to manipulation or coercion.

In the National Security Adjudicative Guidelines it is stated that, “Failure to live within one’s means, satisfy debts, and meet financial obligations may indicate poor self-control, lack of judgment, or unwillingness to abide by rules and regulations, all of which can raise questions about an individual’s reliability, trustworthiness, and ability to protect classified or sensitive information.” It further states that signs of financial difficulties, or living consistently above one’s means, can indicate a willingness to engage in illegal activities, “including espionage.”

The concern with President Trump is that his significant debt makes him a potential security risk to release classified information in exchange for a reduction in debt. This is exacerbated by the fact that it is unclear to whom President Trump and his businesses owe money. If the money is owed to overseas sources, then fears of international leverage over a former president increase.

Were President Trump to apply for a security clearance as a private citizen or a government contractor, he would assuredly be denied. But, as an outgoing president, removing him from the intelligence cycle is a more complex matter.

Following weeks of initial delay following the election, the emerging Biden administration eventually gained access to federal resources that are available to fill political appointments, and to receive the intelligence and security briefings and backgrounds. That access was certainly overdue.

Just as intelligence and national security information must be given expediently to those who are responsible for protecting the country, fairly assessing who should remain in the intelligence loop after Jan. 20 is also a key consideration for effective national security.

(Christina Cliff is an assistant professor of political science and security studies at Franklin Pierce University in Rindge, where she teaches international relations, global security, and diplomacy.)

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