The White House is threatening to retaliate against six prominent critics of U.S. President Donald Trump's stance on Russia by revoking their government security clearances, drawing accusations that Trump is abusing his office by trying to stifle dissent.
The White House said on July 23 that it was targeting six former heads of U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies -- two of whom Trump fired amid disagreements over the FBI's investigation of alleged Russian efforts to sway the 2016 election in his favor.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said the six were targeted because they have "politicized and in some cases monetized their public service and security clearances, making baseless accusations of improper contact with Russia or being influenced by Russia."
Among those targeted is former CIA Director John Brennan, who was one of the severest critics of Trump's handling of his summit last week with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki.
After Trump at a news conference appeared to dismiss findings by the U.S. intelligence committee that Russia meddled in the 2016 election and gave credence to Putin's denials, Brennan tweeted that Trump was "wholly in the pocket of Putin" and his remarks were "nothing short of treasonous."
Also among those targeted is former FBI Director James Comey, who was in charge of the Russia investigation when Trump fired him in May 2017 and who later called Trump "morally unfit to be president."
Critics charge that the targeting of Comey, Brennan, and former top intelligence and national security aides James Clapper, Michael Hayden, Susan Rice, and Andrew McCabe represents an unprecedented "politicization" of what should be a politically neutral security clearance process.
"An enemies list is ugly, undemocratic, and un-American. Is there no length Trump will not go to stifle opposition?" asked U.S. Representative Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee.
Sanders, who said Trump is "exploring the mechanisms" to remove the security clearances, denied that the officials were being targeted because of their criticism of Trump. But she cited Brennan's "treason" comment in explaining the president's threat.
"The fact that people with security clearances are making these baseless charges provides inappropriate legitimacy to accusations with zero evidence," she said.
Trump came under criticism after his summit with Putin from nearly every quarter in Washington, including from some previously loyal Republicans.
One of the few who publicly sided with him at the time, Senator Rand Paul, said he met with Trump on July 23 and asked him to revoke Brennan's security clearance. Brennan currently is a paid analyst for MSNBC.
"John Brennan and others [sic] partisans should have their security clearances revoked," Paul tweeted. "Public officials should not use their security clearances to leverage speaking fees or network talking head fees."
Many former U.S. officials retain security clearances after leaving government service because they continue to advise their former agencies or because it is a condition of employment as government contractors or consultants.
Stripping the officials of their clearances might force them to sever their connections with the intelligence community and would amount to a public rebuke.
"Clearances are taken away for security violations, usually after an investigation," former deputy CIA director John McLaughlin said on Twitter, defending the officials named by the White House.
"These people do not talk classified publicly. It would be political punishment infringing on first amendment [freedom of speech] rights. It's something Putin would do," McLaughlin said.
Former National Intelligence Director Clapper, who is now a paid analyst for CNN and has accused Trump of placing American democratic institutions "under assault," called the White House move "an abuse of the system" and "just a very, very petty thing to do."
Hayden, a former director of the CIA and National Security Agency, said he won't be intimidated by the move.
"Won't have any effect on what I say or write," he wrote on Twitter.
Two of the targets -- Comey and former FBI Deputy Director McCabe, who also was fired by Trump -- say they already have lost their security clearances.
Comey's firing led to the appointment of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who took over the Russia investigation, which Trump has repeatedly called a "witch hunt" and a "hoax."
Trump's reaction to his critics "is what totalitarianism looks like," Democratic Senator Mazie Hirono wrote on Twitter.