Intelligence Briefings for Candidates have become a Political Football

| Walter Pincus
Walter Pincus
Contributing Sr. National Security Columnist, The Cipher Brief

The intelligence briefings scheduled for Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, perhaps as early as this week, may cause some serious reality to be injected into the current presidential campaign rhetoric – but I doubt it.

In fact, because the proposed briefings have already become a political football, I believe they hold some real danger for the intelligence community and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.

Let’s start by recognizing both campaigns have regularly accused their opponent of lying, with the result that both Clinton and Trump have the highest negatives of any previous presidential candidates.

Both have also been been accused of not being able to protect secrets.

In an interview last Wednesday, Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV), the Senate Democratic minority leader, even suggested the intelligence agencies give Trump “fake information” because of his statements about Russia.

Trump had earlier claimed Hillary’s employment of her own private email server showed she could not be trusted with classified information, something he expanded on in a tweet to his 10 million followers last Friday: “Hillary Clinton should not be given national security briefings in that she is a lose cannon with extraordinarily bad judgement & insticts.” Yes, in his enthusiasm, he misspelled “loose,” “judgment,” and “instincts.”

Trump may have been reacting to an anonymous intelligence officer telling the Washington Post that he or she and some colleagues don’t want to participate in the briefings and don’t trust the vocal businessman to keep secret what he is told.

DNI Clapper publicly stated last Friday at the Aspen National Security Forum he has “no hesitation” in offering the briefings to Trump and Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (R-IN) and Clinton and Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA). As presidential and vice presidential candidates chosen at their party conventions, he said they do not need security clearances.

Clapper also said it is “up to them [the presidential candidates] whether to accept” the offer of a briefing “if they want it.” A team of analysts has been prepared and both candidates will be provided with the same material.

Clapper said the briefings “are fairly general…but classified nonetheless.”

President Harry Truman started the practice in 1952 because he felt unprepared on intelligence matters when he took over the presidency in April 1945, upon the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was in his fourth term in office.

Truman originally suggested that year’s presidential candidates, Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower and Democrat Adlai E. Stevenson, lunch with his cabinet members and have a briefing by the CIA “on the foreign situation.” Eisenhower turned that down. 

The purpose back then, according to former CIA official John Helgerson in his treatise, “CIA Briefings of Presidential Candidates,” was so that “the successful candidate would be as well informed as possible on the world situation when he took office.” It also, not surprisingly, helped particularly after the the election to “position the CIA to develop a close working relationship with the new president and his advisers,” Helgerson wrote.

When weekly CIA reports were then offered back in 1952, Eisenhower agreed, but only after saying he wanted to be reassured acceptance “would not limit his freedom to discuss or analyze foreign programs as he wanted.”

That could become a campaign issue here. It has happened before.

In the 1960 election between Democratic Sen. John F. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and then Vice President Richard M. Nixon, campaign issues actually involved intelligence activities and capabilities, especially regarding Cuba.

The Kennedy campaign, sometime after the intelligence briefing, put out a press release written by speechwriter Richard Goodwin that called for a U.S. attempt “to strengthen the non-Batista, democratic anti-Castro forces in exile, and in Cuba itself, who offer eventual hope of overthrowing Castro.”

Of course the CIA was at the time preparing such a group, supposedly covertly, and Nixon who knew of the operation, thought Kennedy also knew based on the CIA briefing. Nixon later wrote he was handicapped in their next debate by not being able to respond to the Kennedy statement.

Years later, Kennedy supporters said he had not known.  The issue was never really settled until Allen Dulles, who was CIA Director at the time, said the operation, which became the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, had not been disclosed to Kennedy while he was a candidate.

The practice at such briefings is that the candidates are told of the classified nature of the material. They are presented with facts and analytical judgments. They are not given details of clandestine or covert operations, nor will there be discussion of policy, according to a senior intelligence official.

The subject matter is expected to include information presented to Congress in the intelligence worldwide threat hearings but at a deeper level, according to Clapper.

The question for each candidate then becomes what help does the briefing provide them?

Where the two candidates hold sharply different views on such key subjects as the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS) and other terrorist groups, the war in Syria, the nuclear agreement with Iran, and relations with Russia and our own allies, there could be a tendency by one or the other candidate to cherry pick what they hear in the classified briefing to support their campaign positions in public.

“Both our adversaries and our allies and partners will be listening closely, extremely closely, to what candidates say about the issues during the campaign, and saying the wrong thing could damage our national security. The briefings are meant to help prevent that,” former acting CIA Director Michael Morell wrote in a June 1 essay on these briefings here on thecipherbrief.com.

The question arises what happens if one or the other candidate appears to misuse or even distort the information they have been given during their briefing? Any challenge by the opposing candidate will be dismissed as politics.

Will someone from the intelligence community have to say something publicly?

Clapper at Aspen showed the nervousness an intelligence official feels when his own remarks might come close to taking a position on the current campaign rhetoric. Asked about the impact of remarks by Trump about NATO allies of the U.S. who have not met defense payments goals and therefore might not get U.S. support if invaded by Russia, Clapper made clear he was stating a personal opinion before saying, “I can say with some authority that such statements, such rhetoric are very bothersome to our foreign interlocutors, our foreign partners…And it is a worry to them, it really is.”

I would not be too surprised if Trump decides not to take the briefings so he is able to freely say whatever comes to mind when it comes to national security and foreign affairs, citing his own unnamed sources.

After all, as he said last November in Iowa when talking about the U.S. military, “I know more about ISIS than the generals do. Believe me.” Last June 5 on CBS’ Face the Nation, he referred to “certain generals” who told him “you could knock them (ISIS) out fast. For some reason Obama is not doing that.”

No current intelligence analyst is going to tell Trump that defeat of ISIS is going to happen fast during a classified briefing — they all know it is going to take years. So it may be better if Trump does not have to listen to what may be the real facts.

The Author is Walter Pincus

Walter Pincus is a contributing senior national security columnist for The Cipher Brief. He spent forty years at The Washington Post, writing on topics from nuclear weapons to politics.  In 2002, he and a team of Post reporters won the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting. He also won an Emmy in 1981 and the 2010 Arthur Ross Award from the American Academy for Diplomacy.

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