Providing intelligence briefings to presidential candidates is a practice that goes back more than sixty years to the administration of Harry Truman. The briefings are a courtesy and have no basis in law but they are intended to level the playing field somewhat so that an incumbent would not necessarily have an advantage over an adversary who has no access to government produced foreign policy and national security assessments. The briefings are only provided to the two major party candidates and are limited to the candidate, the vice-presidential running mates, and a couple of top aides.
There is no mandated number of briefings for the candidates and it is generally assumed that they will be provided at intervals based on what is happening internationally that might impact on policy prescriptions being debated during the campaign. The briefings have traditionally been produced and delivered by senior CIA analysts and on one occasion agency director Robert Gates even flew to Arkansas to meet with and brief then candidate Governor Bill Clinton. Currently the office of the Director of National Intelligence coordinates the briefing but it is reported that the briefers largely are CIA.
Some presidential candidates do not have active security clearances even if they have served in the federal government and are familiar with classification procedures while some others, including governors, have never had to deal at all with the need to protect national secrets. Trump, though admittedly familiar with maintaining confidentiality relating to business documents and dealings, has no experience of government classification and security procedures, which are both quite different in nature and uncompromising in terms of the measures that must be taken to protect the intelligence product.
The briefings will generally be limited to broad overviews of threats and other situations that are developing worldwide but there will be no detailed discussion of sources or capabilities. In intelligence jargon, the candidates will not be receiving any “code word” or “special access” information, nor will they be told anything about CIA or Pentagon covert actions.
This omission is not necessarily intended to imply that there is any risk in providing such information but it serves as a learning device or reminder for the candidates themselves, to impress upon them the “need to know” principle, as well as an introduction or refresher regarding the secure handling of classified information. Specific security guidelines are reviewed in detail prior to each briefing session.
Up until now there has never been any expressed concern by an incumbent administration that either of the major party candidates would mishandle the intelligence that they are provided and, indeed, there have been no known leaks that have developed from the process. No candidate has ever inadvertently or intentionally exploited or misused the classified information that he has been given access to.
It is reported that both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will be briefed by the intelligence analyst teams this week and, for the first time, concerns are being expressed regarding security. Given the overwhelming media and institutional bias against Trump, most of the speculation relates to him, often particularly focused on his tendency to shoot-from-the-lip in his frequently extemporaneous and freeform campaign stops. It is feared that if he is briefed on an issue and it somehow pops into his head while he is speaking it might well come out in some form or another. Even President Obama has become involved, warning Trump that he has “got to start acting like a president. And that means being able to now receive these briefings and not spread them around.”
James Clapper, director of national intelligence, addressed the issue of the classified briefings on July 28, saying that there was no concern, that it was appropriate to begin the process as “both candidates have been officially anointed.” He added that the briefings are part of a long non-partisan tradition, and that a team of analysts was actively preparing the identical material that would be presented to Clinton and Trump. But critics were not so sure, suspecting that Clapper was either not being candid or was ignorant of what many of his staff were reportedly saying. The Washington Post ran a story on the briefings shortly after Clapper spoke contending that there was considerable dissent, with one anonymous senior intelligence official reportedly saying “I would refuse” to brief Trump based on his admiration for Russian president Vladimir Putin and his apparent disinterest in world events. The Post also alleged that there was “deep unease among many spy officials with the real estate mogul’s pro-Russian rhetoric” adding that Trump’s call on Russia to “target Clinton’s accounts…was seen as particularly incendiary among intelligence professionals who regard Russia as a bitter foe.”
In a follow-up article the Post also quoted former CIA Director Michael Hayden, who speculated on the precise content of a power point briefing that Trump might be given, saying “It beggars the imagination. Given that [Trump’s] public persona seems to reflect a lack of understanding or care about global issues, how do you arrange these presentations to learn what are the true depths of his understanding?”
Another media report back in June claimed that eight senior security officials, again anonymous, were “worried about Trump having access to classified information.” And even before that in March a former CIA analyst Aki Peritz told the Guardian of his concern that Trump cannot compartmentalize “his thoughts from his public utterances” tweeting “random, and sometimes untrue, items he read on the internet” and has “even been fine with quoting Benito Mussolini.”
Yet another anonymous official cited the Trump tendency to speak off-the-cuff, pulling together what he has heard and read without any filter on what he is saying, while former CIA Deputy Director John McLaughlin identified another problem. For McLaughlin, who has had considerable experience in briefing senior officials of both the U.S. and foreign governments, a major concern would be Trump’s clear disinclination to process information that runs contrary to what he thinks. In the briefings he will undoubtedly be hearing many things that contradict positions that he has taken. Will he accept or ignore what he is being told? If he ignores it—not for political reasons but because he believes it to be untrue—the briefing will largely be a waste of time.
And then there is Hillary Clinton, whose own questionable practices relating to securing classified information are by now well known, she having been criticizedby the FBI director, James Comey, as “extremely careless.” The Washington Post, while crucifying Trump, characteristically whitewashed Clinton, accepting her explanation for the home server email crisis while also praising her experience: she “unlike Trump…has participated in hundreds of intelligence briefings in her career…” That might indeed be true on one level but some observers are not unreasonably pointing out that Hillary Clinton has actually demonstrated a problem with protecting classified information—while Donald Trump’s ability or willingness to do so remains an unknown.
Nearly everything written about Trump in the mainstream media is shaped by the unrelenting hostility that the Washington establishment exhibits towards him, so the elaborations provided by anonymous sources and appearing in extremely unfriendly media outlets should be taken for what they are worth. Many of the named sources, like Michael Hayden, are themselves both longtime critics of Trump and major beneficiaries of the status quo, so it is not surprising that they would suddenly find themselves conveniently concerned over his access to classified information. It is all sheer speculation but it provides another stick to beat Trump with.
And it is of particular interest how the Washington Post seeks to link the intelligence community anger at Trump to Russia and Putin, both regular targets of the newspaper and a convenient hook to demonstrate alleged disloyalty on the part of the GOP candidate. Since the end of the Cold War, I have rarely noted any former or current intelligence officer’s hatred of Russia as the “bitter foe.” Does the paper make all this stuff up? Maybe. At a minimum I believe it would be fair to say that the Post is heavily editorializing what it describes as a news story, not exactly unusual for a newspaper that has an editorial page controlled by neoconservatives who have never been shy about pushing their anti-Trump, anti-Putin agenda.
I regularly talk to a number of former intelligence agency colleagues, many of whom do not like Trump and will not vote for him, but I do not detect much concern over providing him with classified briefings on international developments. Nearly everyone assumes that he is a patriotic American and will protect what is shared with him. The angst over the Trump briefing appears to be contrived, coming mostly from the media and the chattering class. Indeed, I hear much more anger from former colleagues over the Hillary Clinton email scandal because with all her vaunted experience she should and must have known better, and chose to disregard the rules anyway. Many of us believe she ought to be in jail. In any event, both candidates will receive their briefings and one hopes that a better understanding of some developments in the world will prove beneficial to them, possibly making them think twice about some of the ill-advised policies that they have been promoting.
Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.