Obama Should Cancel Trump’s Intelligence Briefings

If the Republican candidate is unfit for office, he’s unfit to receive classified information — unless he signs a nondisclosure agreement.

MILWAUKEE, WI - NOVEMBER 10:  Presidential candidate Donald Trump gestures after Carly Fiorina says she met with Russian President Putin at a one on one meeting, during the Republican Presidential Debate sponsored by Fox Business and the Wall Street Journal at the Milwaukee Theatre November 10, 2015 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The fourth Republican debate is held in two parts, one main debate for the top eight candidates, and another for four other candidates lower in the current polls.  (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
MILWAUKEE, WI - NOVEMBER 10: Presidential candidate Donald Trump gestures after Carly Fiorina says she met with Russian President Putin at a one on one meeting, during the Republican Presidential Debate sponsored by Fox Business and the Wall Street Journal at the Milwaukee Theatre November 10, 2015 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The fourth Republican debate is held in two parts, one main debate for the top eight candidates, and another for four other candidates lower in the current polls. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Now that the Republican and Democratic conventions are over, it’s time for a quaint American tradition to begin. If it hasn’t already, the U.S. intelligence community will soon reach out to the campaigns of the two major candidates to schedule intelligence briefings. In most years, the tradition draws scant attention. This isn’t, however, most years.

The notion of giving Donald Trump access to classified information seems, well, unwise. Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) went so far as to suggest that Trump be given a fake briefing. For his part, the real estate tycoon has suggested Hillary Clinton should be the one denied a briefing, claiming that “she is a lose [sic] cannon with extraordinarily bad judgement & insticts [sic].”

It is worth asking why the intelligence community bothers at all with briefing candidates during the election. Candidates are usually pretty busy, what with trying to win an election to the country’s most powerful office. Given the challenge of scheduling a briefing in between campaign stops, often the first meeting won’t happen until well into September. In 2012, Mitt Romney did not receive his initial briefing until Sept. 17. (If that date is remembered as newsworthy today, it’s for the release by Mother Jones journalist David Corn of a little video showing Romney making an ill-chosen remark about 47 percent of Americans.)

The intelligence briefing tradition traces back to Harry Truman, who seems to have offered them to Adlai Stevenson and Dwight Eisenhower during the 1952 campaign in part because he had entered the Oval Office relatively ignorant of intelligence matters. Eisenhower initially declined Truman’s offer, though later changed his mind after press reports indicated that Stevenson had accepted the offer. For its part, the intelligence community looks at the briefing as a perk, an early opportunity to schmooze with the future leader of the free world.

It is also a perk for the candidates, who are given access to classified information without having to endure the indignity of applying for security clearance. And it’s a good thing, too, because I can’t imagine either Trump or Clinton getting one the way the rest of us might.

Fortunately for them, candidates are given classified information without undergoing a background check. The president “clears” any such check as soon as he or she is elected — classification is, after all, something the executive branch decides — but the tradition is to treat the nomination of a major party as the background check. (Sorry, Gary and Jill.)

While I’ve read about some officials indicating that most of the information in briefings is confidential or secret, I am not sure that’s quite right. After all, if you’ve followed the debate surrounding Clinton’s emails, you are probably aware that what the government defines as top secret can seem silly. And we actually know quite a lot about what past candidates have been told, thanks to a lovely book by John Helgerson called CIA Briefings of Presidential Candidates.

Helgerson’s book, published by the CIA’s Center for the Study of Intelligence, only runs through 1992, but as best I can tell, the process remains the same. A few months ago, political journalist Jacob Weisberg interviewed John McLaughlin, a former acting director of the CIA who gave Bill Clinton one of his 1992 briefings, as well as briefings to candidates since including George W. Bush, John Kerry, and John Edwards, and his account is consistent with Helgerson’s.

Helgerson’s account of the briefings given to Jimmy Carter in 1976 is especially interesting. (As someone who studies decision-making, pretty much everything about Carter is interesting because he was so weird.) Carter was a notorious micromanager, and he was unusually engaged in the briefing, as he was in pretty much everything else. He didn’t want one briefing; he wanted a series. And his first briefing, in Plains, Georgia, lasted six freaking hours.

The briefers provided 30-minute summaries of the situation in “Lebanon, Iraqi-Syrian relations, strains between Egypt and Libya, the Taiwan Straits, Rhodesia, the Cuban presence in Angola, and developments in Uganda” before turning to the really meaty stuff — several hours on Soviet strategic programs, including “a detailed description of Soviet forces for intercontinental nuclear attack and for nuclear attack on the Eurasian periphery … Soviet strategic defense capabilities and [U.S.] estimates of long-term prospects for the strategic balance.” In advance of the next briefing, two weeks later, Carter submitted a list of 44 questions.

Vice presidential candidates, too, are usually offered briefings. Carter’s running mate, Walter Mondale, also had an interesting briefing, though he caused consternation because he asked a series of questions that made the briefer uncomfortable. Mondale started asking about U.S. intelligence cooperation with other countries and then moved on to questions about covert operations. The briefer thought Mondale deserved a direct response but didn’t think discussing ongoing operations was a great idea.

What briefers are allowed to say to the candidates is actually not cut and dry. In theory, the president can set guidelines, but briefers also want to make a good impression on a future boss. McLaughlin explained this dynamic to Weisberg, saying, “The briefer is going to have to be somewhat improvisational. You have some guidelines, but inevitably the candidate takes you to the things that are of interest to that person.” Weisberg, probably thinking about Trump, pushed McLaughlin about what might happen if a candidate seemed irresponsible. “I can’t stress the degree to which, in the end, the briefer has to use personal judgment because of the fluid, dynamic nature of these discussions,” McLaughlin responded. “Who am I to judge, sitting there, that this person would or would not pass a clearance?”

There is one other aspect that is worth mentioning. The intelligence community tries to treat the campaigns equally. That means providing the same information to both campaigns. As columnist Fred Kaplan has noted, and as the Carter example cited above shows, the nominees can request specific briefings. But in that case, the intelligence community would offer the other nominee the same briefing. In other words, even if Trump doesn’t ask any penetrating questions, Clinton might. And, at least to date, the practice has been to provide the same information to both sides.

What would happen if, in the next few months, there was a major incident involving Russia and one of the campaigns asked for briefing? The notion of the intelligence community briefing Trump, throbbing with affection for Vladimir Putin, on the U.S. approach to a crisis with Russia seems … unwise.

That gets us to the big question: Should Donald Trump be denied the courtesy of an intelligence briefing? I don’t much care for the idea of a “fake” briefing or trying to put strict limits on what a briefer might say. As a general rule, I think it is cowardly for a president to pass that responsibility to a lower-ranking career civil servant. Barack Obama’s administration has already tried to shift responsibility for the content of the briefings to the intelligence community. If the president thinks Trump is unfit — and Obama has said so — he should simply deny him the briefing.

Moreover, who is to say the briefer won’t like Trump? We assume that the briefer will realize Trump is a fool. But intelligence professionals come in all political stripes, even that special orange hue of crazy. One of Trump’s earliest endorsements came from retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, the former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency. And another former intelligence official was recently quoted in the Washington Post fawning over Trump’s hypothetical poker skills. Some intelligence officials like Trump. And then there is the human tendency to suck up to a future boss.

Once the briefer is in the room, that person controls what Trump gets to hear. Obama shouldn’t assume he or she will give Trump a fake briefing. There are plenty of reasons an intelligence officer might feel obliged to give the nominee of the Republican Party for president, nutballs or not, the real thing.

The other objection, of course, is the politics of that decision might not play out well. Trump will play the victim, tweeting about how the president is trying to help “Crooked Hillary” and mentioning the email issues about eleventy bazillion times.

There might be another way. Trump is, of course, famous for making his campaign staff sign nondisclosure agreements. I am tempted to propose that the president insist Trump and Clinton sign an NDA before receiving the briefing. That isn’t normally done, so far as I know, presumably because the point of briefing the candidate is to inform the candidate. The very point of a briefing is to give the candidate factual information that would allow for a more sophisticated and nuanced discussion of national security issues. Fat chance with Trump! The best-case scenario would be an NDA, which would oblige him to shut up on matters of national security entirely.

Trump won’t shut up, of course, but maybe he’ll take the hint and reject the briefing. Eisenhower initially rejected Truman’s offer precisely because Ike did not wish to be constrained in what he might say on the campaign trail. It’s possible that Trump would see the NDA for the humiliation that it is and then forgo the briefing.

Until, and unless, he wins the election. Then God help us.

Photo credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Jeffrey Lewis is director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program for the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. Twitter: @ArmsControlWonk

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