There’ve been a number of commentaries and defenses of William McRaven’s open letter regarding President Donald J. Trump’s revocation of former CIA director John Brennan’s intelligence clearance. Two of the highest-profile responses show one side of the thorny issue that the retired four-star officer thrust onto the military profession and the national security community. This piece will explore another.
At War on the Rocks, Kori Schake makes the exact argument one expects from a member of the national security community who knows McRaven, who worked for him and agrees with him in intent if not deed. She also rightfully acknowledges that “McRaven crossed an important line from making a national security case, on which his expertise is deeper and more significant than most, to a political one on which for civil-military purposes, he ought to be treated as any other voter.”
Susan Hennessey and Mikhaila Fogel make their case at The Atlantic. They opine that McRaven is not speaking to the public at large, but rather to “a small community of his peers, those who have served in high-ranking national security posts, both in and out of uniform, and have, like McRaven, remained staunchly apolitical.” They also recognize that McRaven is no longer apolitical: “Already, speculation is rising that McRaven plans to run for president in 2020 or that he should. McRaven may have been speaking to his compeers, but the rest of the world saw a man known for the stars on his shoulder, saying Trump is a danger to this country.”
These commentaries are perfectly correct thoughts and ideas for non-military members of the national security community. For someone within the military profession, as Admiral McRaven and I are, the issue is very different.
To begin with, despite Dr. Schake’s ideas, we, the military officers current and retired, cannot treat McRaven as “any other voter.” To do so is disrespectful of his rank. I am honestly bothered when I use just his last name, even though I do it as shorthand and not intending disrespect. For Hennessey and Fogle, while they may believe Admiral McRaven’s message was intended for a small audience, the reality is where and how he sent it: full-throated, contemptuous condemnation in an openly combative opinion piece.
Secondly, Admiral McRaven, a member of the military profession, remains bound by the rules and norms of the profession. As a matter of law, even though retired, he remains bound by the Uniform Code of Military Justice. As am I. The President, while not bound by the UCMJ, is the titular commander-in-chief and as such deserves every bit of the same respect provided Admiral McRaven by law, custom, and tradition.
Third, Admiral McRaven serves as an example to current and retired members of the military as well as to those outside it. His high-profile military duties make him more well-known than the vast majority of other 4-star officers much less those of us of lesser rank. His example, however, is one that must be repudiated for the profession to remain whole. Why? Because if any other officer—especially one currently serving—used McRaven’s words (“Through your actions, you have embarrassed us in the eyes of our children, humiliated us on the world stage and, worst of all, divided us as a nation”) about the Commander-in-Chief to describe anyone in their chain of command the resulting action would be swift. Such action could range from a quiet and direct personal conversation all the way to a court-martial.
Of course, it’s not that simple. McRaven is retired, so who would have this conversation from any level of legal authority? The President should not, at least not if the effect were to strengthen the profession. Likewise for the Vice-President. The Secretaries of Defense and Navy are both political appointees, and this issue is seen as a political one. Except that for McRaven and what he wrote, it’s not. It’s one of professional standards and not meeting them.
Where does that leave the profession? That is where the senior serving naval officers must act. And since McRaven made a public statement, they must do so as well. This issues is not about the President and his legal ability to remove clearances. Rather, the issue is a retired officer who violated the standards of the profession.
Fortunately, we have some very recent and applicable guidance from one of the men who can protect the standards of the profession. On Aug. 13, Defense Secretary Mattis released a memorandum entitled “Discipline and Lethality.” In that memo, the secretary made some of the same comments I did above: that those who knowingly violate our standards must face military discipline. That, in this case, remaining silent, or rebuking in private, may be an easy action which in the long run makes it an easy wrong.
Secretary Mattis could, as a matter of law, recall Admiral McRaven and court-martial him for violations of the UCMJ including Article 88 (Contempt towards officials), Article 104 (Aiding the enemy), Article 117 (Provoking Speech of gestures), or Article 133 (Conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman). Convicting McRaven, or whether it’s even advisable to recall the retired admiral, is something else entirely. It’s also possible that he could recall McRaven and hold some form of non-judicial punishment. Or, as was done for officers involved in the Glenn Defense Marine Asia scandal, Secretary Mattis or Secretary Spencer could issue a letter of censure against Admiral McRaven.
Realistically, however, there is little precedent for bringing Admiral McRaven back on active duty for either judicial or non-judicial punishment. He is not accused of murder or child-pornography—two recent cases in which retirees were brought back to active duty for courts-martial. The only retired flag officer court-martialed was Adm. Selden Hooper, who was tried by general court-martial for sodomy, conduct of a nature to bring discredit upon the Armed Forces, and conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman—in other words, for being homosexual. While sodomy may have been against the UCMJ and civil law in 1958, Hooper retired in 1950, so one would think the offense would then be tried in civilian court. The other two offenses, however, have so far as I know, no compatible charges under civilian law. Hooper was found guilty and sentenced to dismissal. So, for actions outside the military, a retired officer was dismissed from the Navy and stripped of his pension. With only one known case of a purely military violation of the UCMJ, there is little precedent with which to work.
What might the remedy be? Something as simple as a press release, or even a tweet, from Secretary Mattis that says, “I spoke with Bill McRaven today and reiterated the standards of our profession, standards that we do not put away when we retired” would suffice. Conversely, remaining silent will only serve to lessen the efficacy of military discipline and place an unfortunate context around a memorandum not even seven days old.
The rest of us, active and retired, must remember that there are ways to disagree without being disagreeable. There are ways to condemn without personal contempt. This latter part is the example I wish McRaven had set. And seniors must also be careful to separate true contempt from language that is simply a cris de coeur or unpopular or personally inconvenient. That is an example I intend to follow, and quite honestly, hope my direct superiors do as well.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Naval War College, the U.S. Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.