INTERVIEW: Steve Yates explains security clearances amid national debate

Steve Yates explains the role of security clearances and the reasons a person may retain those clearances after leaving their job with the government during an interview on The Neal Larson Show | Sydney Jensen, KID NewsRadio

Editor’s Note: The following interview of Steve Yates also includes his discussion on other topics, in addition to his conversation on The Neal Larson Show about security clearances.

IDAHO FALLS, Idaho — Steve Yates, Deputy National Security Advisor to the Vice President to former U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney, explained the function of security clearances during an interview on Wednesday, August 22 amid a national debate about former government employees keeping their clearances after leaving their jobs.

The controversy began largely after the White House announced President Trump had revoked former CIA director John Brennan’s security clearance.

“Mr. Brennan has a history that calls into question his objectivity and credibility,” according to a statement from President Trump. “Mr. Brennan’s lying and recent conduct, characterized by increasingly frenzied commentary, is wholly inconsistent with access to the nation’s most closely held secrets, and facilities [facilitates] the very aim of our adversaries, which is to sow division and chaos.”

Brennan took to Twitter to express his frustration accusing the president of suppressing freedom of speech and said the decision should be alarming to the nation.

“It should gravely worry all Americans, including intelligence professionals, about the cost of speaking out,” John Brennan said on Twitter. “My principles are worth far more than clearances. I will not relent.”

But, Yates said, Brennan’s behavior and statements about his security clearances demonstrate a larger breakdown in how people view security clearances, especially after individuals have left their jobs with the government. Security clearances, Yates said, are based on a “need to know,” something that’s determined by the government’s needs and not the individual’s.

Everyone from a very low level person…you get read into clearance programs and you’re taught a fundamental called ‘need to know,'”That ‘need to know’ isn’t do you need to know something, it’s does the government of the United States and it’s top leadership need you to know something in order to advise them? It isn’t supposed to be vanity thing. It isn’t supposed to be something that you go in and bank on. It’s does the government of the United States and its current leadership need you.”

Traditionally, former directors or other top agency leaders have retained their security clearances after leaving their job to help incoming leaders transition to new responsibilities or consult on specific issues. But, even in cases where people retain their security clearances, the federal government still needs to balance just how vital it is to allow a person to retain their clearance, Yates said.

“It’s still courtesy and it’s still a question of do we need that person to come in,” Yates said. “Does the president, the cabinet, the cleared leadership of Congress, do they need someone to have a clearance in order to engage in a conversation…a lot of people who have a particular expertise in government can get hired by government contractors to work on projects and that knowledge and expertise that they had does give them a leg up on getting hired in companies full-time or as contractors. But, part of that process is they can say that they’ve got a clearance because that’s something that the government lets you say, but they should not be out there advertising what they know or disclosing anything.”

Additionally, Yates said, Brennan’s behavior in the political arena brings his need for a security clearance under further scrutiny. While serving in the White House,  even Yates’ off-hours activities were severely limited because of his position in the government.

“There is a Hatch Act that is supposed to cover everyone that works in national security that severely limits what you can do in partisan politics,” Yates said. “So, the idea that someone with this top level clearance can go on TV and be a rabid dog critic of a president, I don’t know how that’s consistent with these other kinds of restrictions.”

Yates said he hopes the backlash generated by Brennan’s revoked security clearance sends a message to Congress and federal administration about how convoluted and ineffective the process of reviewing, approving, retaining and even revoking security clearances is.

I hope what it is, is a wake up call for the Congress and the administration to really flush away this overly complicated, overly expensive and ineffective system, and put in place some simple and clear guidelines about when you get this privilege of a security clearance to serve the United States national security interests, these are the things you will and will not do, and if you violate them, you’re done.”