Why you should care
Because the stakes are very, very high.
John McLaughlin is the former deputy director of the CIA. He writes a regular column on OZY called “The Spy Who Told Me” and teaches at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).
Back in June, we posed a question to our senior contributor, John McLaughlin: What kind of intelligence briefings do presidential nominees get? McLaughlin was and is the right man to answer that question. As former deputy director and acting director of the CIA, he has briefed no fewer than four presidents — Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush — and a good number of major-party nominees.
Now that Donald J. Trump and Hillary Clinton have secured their parties’ nominations, briefing season is afoot. But in the wake of recent events — which include the FBI director criticizing Clinton for mishandling classified information, and Trump lashing out erratically— we have even more questions. We turned to McLaughlin again to get the latest on Trump, Clinton and this most unusual election.
Has a candidate ever been denied a briefing? No. The assumption is that if a person is this close to obtaining the world’s most powerful office, he or she needs to have this briefing. The president should not come to office and hear the intelligence take for the first time on Inauguration Day.
That’s what happened to President Harry Truman back in 1945, when President Roosevelt’s sudden death catapulted him from the vice presidency to the Oval Office. In fact, Truman started the tradition of briefing major-party nominees, with Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower and Gov. Adlai Stevenson. Over the intervening years, such briefings for major candidates have become a fixture of the pre-election season.
Could Trump become the first candidate to be denied? I understand why the question arises. After more than a week’s worth of gaffes — his spat with a Gold Star military family, his initial refusal to endorse key Republicans supporting him like Sen. John McCain, his accepting with unseemly glee a Purple Heart from a wounded veteran, and his statement, today, that many heard as inciting violence toward Clinton — questions have arisen over whether Trump can control himself. Moreover, he has shown ignorance and lack of preparation on issues such as U.S. nuclear weaponry, Russian actions in Ukraine and relations with key alliances. Ironically, of course, this may be the real reason to go ahead and brief him, to make sure he has all the facts straight and has a better way to gauge the feasibility and consequences of policies he may favor if he wins the election.
Some commentators have publicly worried about whether Trump will treat all of the information with discretion and not blurt it out in public. Well, the only way to find out is to brief him and see what happens. If he were to blurt something out, it really would disqualify him from the briefings — and I suspect serious consideration would be given to ending any briefings. If I were asked to brief Trump, I would do it out of a sense of duty and professionalism — but I must say that after all he has said and done, I would not do it with any pleasure or sense of respect.
Doesn’t Clinton also have a problem, given the FBI director’s criticism of her email security practices? It’s a fair question, but there are many differences between Clinton’s case and Trump’s. First, despite controversy about some of Clinton’s recent statements regarding her email record, she has acknowledged her error and presumably has incentive to be all the more careful with classified information so as not to feed the impression that her email controversy created. Admitting error is, so far, not in Trump’s repertoire.
Second, unlike Trump, Clinton has already had to deal with the nation’s most sensitive secrets in her job as secretary of state and begins with a close familiarity with this material and a demonstrated knowledge of how to factor it into her policy deliberations; whatever material was revealed in her emails, however regrettable, was a tiny fraction of the highly sensitive data to which she was exposed during her tenure. None of this is to excuse her error, but it seems to me the context is entirely different than with Trump.
How are the briefings arranged? Traditionally, the sitting president must make the offer. A White House official, such as the national security adviser, then contacts the candidate’s key staffer, usually the foreign policy adviser, to arrange the sessions and work out the modalities.
Who does the briefings? That has varied. Working-level analysts briefed Eisenhower and Stevenson, while the director of the CIA briefed candidates John Kennedy (in 1960) and Bill Clinton (1991). As deputy CIA director, I briefed candidates George W. Bush (2000) and John Kerry (2004), along with a couple of specific experts. In recent years, the director of national intelligence (a post created in December 2004) has arranged the briefings. The briefers may include officers from intelligence agencies besides the CIA.
How often do the briefings occur? The number and location are negotiated with the candidates. Given hectic campaign schedules, the briefings are often hard to arrange. Ronald Reagan had just one session in 1980, as did Bill Clinton in 1992, whereas Kennedy and Jimmy Carter met with intelligence officers several times. In 2004, I briefed Kerry twice — once in Louisville, Kentucky, and once in Boston.
What do the briefings cover? Usually they include most of the issues occupying the sitting president, often supplemented by specific interests of the candidate. With Eisenhower and Kennedy, it was the range of early Cold War Soviet military issues. With Carter, the briefings included Middle East trouble spots, the Taiwan Strait, Cuba, arms control and an array of African issues. My briefing for Bush was driven largely by his wide-ranging questions on everything from China, Russia, North Korea, Iraq, Iran, terrorism and the Balkans to a range of Latin American issues. With Kerry, we put together a briefing that responded in part to seven pages of questions from his campaign covering terrorism, Iraq and the Middle East, Russia, China, trouble spots in East Asia, Africa, Latin America and broader issues such as energy security.
Who joins the candidate in the briefings and how sensitive is the material? This is usually negotiated with the White House. It typically involves one or two trusted advisers. The candidates may see some “raw” intelligence, such as satellite photos, but the briefers’ sources are usually described generically and in terms of reliability rather than with reference to specific sources and methods. Typically at this point, briefers do not go into detail on covert action programs or other ultrasensitive activities not even shared widely among cleared, currently serving government officials.
To my knowledge, the candidates are not formally “cleared” for the briefings; the assumption has been that anyone that close to becoming president will be responsible.
What are the atmospherics in these briefings? In my personal experience they are professional and serious. The “spin” atmosphere of the campaign falls away; these are entirely nonpolitical discussions. The candidates are frequently interested in the straight intelligence take on issues that are particularly contentious in the campaign, and the briefers will provide that in the most objective way possible. The briefers will go well prepared to discuss the issues most pressing at the moment, but how the briefing unfolds is totally unpredictable. My experience more frequently has been having to put the briefing book aside and go with the flow of the candidate’s questions, which may be different in substance and priority from what the briefers have prepared.
With Clinton, much of the briefing could focus on an update for issues that she has already worked on extensively in the Senate or the State Department. Trump’s interests are much less predictable because of his limited public record in foreign policy and politics generally. My guess is that he will be impressed by — possibly even annoyed by — the complexity of the issues as compared with the sound bite simplicities of the campaign trail.
Interested in learning more? I recommend an excellent book, Getting to Know the President, by John Helgerson, a former CIA colleague. It’s available online here.
This piece, originally published in June 29, 2016, was updated on August 9, 2016.