- By Stephen SlickSteve Slick is the director of the Intelligence Studies Project at the University of Texas-Austin. He served from 2005 to 2009 as a special assistant to the president and the senior director for intelligence programs and reform on the NSC staff.
Next Wednesday, or shortly thereafter, the U.S. president-elect will sit down with the leaders of our intelligence community to review global hotspots, inventory current threats, and learn what the government is doing about them. As the major party nominees, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have already received several intelligence briefings in keeping with a practice that dates back to 1952. Needless to say, much has changed in the world, and in U.S. presidential politics, during the last 60 years. It is more important than ever for U.S. intelligence to help prepare the next commander-in-chief, but it no longer makes sense to start that process during the campaign. Presidential candidates no longer need, and often do not want, classified intelligence information at this phase in the election cycle. Starting intelligence briefings after the election would serve the same important purpose while mitigating unnecessary risks to our security and democracy.
President Harry Truman graciously offered to host intelligence briefings at the White House for the Republican and Democratic nominees (General Dwight D. Eisenhower and Governor Adlai Stevenson, respectively) to ensure that his successor would be better prepared to defend the nation than he was when President Franklin D. Roosevelt died unexpectedly and Truman assumed the presidency five years earlier. Eisenhower, who was no stranger to the world beyond our borders, initially suspected Truman of setting a partisan trap, but he eventually agreed to participate in the briefing sessions. In each of the next 15 election cycles, the sitting president has authorized the head of U.S. intelligence to offer classified briefings to the candidates (or his challenger in those cases where incumbents were seeking re-election), beginning after the summer nominating conventions.
The purpose most often cited for pre-election briefings is to educate the candidate(s) on world affairs, in particular those without significant overseas experience. Some candidates, like then-Governor Jimmy Carter, wanted to know the secrets so they would not inadvertently divulge them on the campaign trail. Quite understandably, the intelligence officials who participate in this process are keen to learn more about a potential “first customer,” and also to make a good impression on the new boss.
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), which picked up this responsibility from the Central Intelligence Agency a decade ago, goes to great lengths to provide briefings that are informative, non-partisan, and discrete. To make certain no candidate receives an unfair advantage, the briefers scrupulously ensure that both candidates receive the same facts and assessments.
The 2016 election has defied convention in countless respects, including the (unwelcome) scrutiny focused on the pre-election intelligence briefings. Republicans challenged Clinton’s ability to safeguard state secrets, citing the ongoing email controversy. Democrats leveled the same charge against Trump, in part because of his expressed admiration for Russia’s authoritarian president. One prominent senator suggested creatively that Trump be provided “fake” briefings to protect actual secrets. After one briefing session with intelligence experts, the Republican nominee claimed implausibly to have detected in their “body language” disapproval of the Obama administration’s counterterrorism policies. In the final debate, Trump publicly discounted a consensus intelligence community judgment that Russia was behind computer hacks directed at the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign. Despite the grave harm such claims inflict on the reputation of U.S. intelligence, the ODNI was constrained from responding and correcting the record, presumably for fear of being dragged more deeply into a fetid, partisan swamp.
In addition to the risks of politicizing these briefings, there is also a real danger that sensitive information will be compromised — deliberately or inadvertently — in the course of a chaotic, winner-take-all contest. For this reason, the pre-election briefings given to candidates are acknowledged to be quite general. Because of busy campaign schedules, the national security briefings for candidates are also relatively infrequent. In 1980, Ronald Reagan participated in a single intelligence briefing prior to his election, and it was widely understood that he did so only to avoid a charge by his opponent that he was uninterested in mastering the details of foreign policy. The same practical political calculation is present in every modern campaign, where major-party candidates are supported by vast networks of policy advisors, including well-informed former intelligence and security officials. Finally, we have never developed a uniform practice for handling intelligence briefings for third-party candidates. Why were John Anderson (1980) and Ross Perot (1992) briefed, but no intelligence support was offered this year to Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson?
The hazards of perpetuating Truman’s noble gesture of providing intelligence to presidential candidates are real, multiple, and cumulative. The offsetting benefits — candidates better prepared for office or an elevated campaign debate on foreign policy — are much harder to identify. At this moment, our intelligence leaders are focused on providing the president- and vice-president-elect with as many detailed, all-source briefings on global trouble spots and covert operations as can be scheduled between the election and inauguration day. The next president will want them and need them. Intelligence briefings for his or her successor should not begin until after Election Day in 2020 (or 2024).
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