Presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will begin receiving top secret briefings from the US intelligence community in the coming days, and that's leading some big names in Washington — and some people around the country — to say they shouldn't go forward because neither candidate can be trusted with sensitive classified information.
But the president says they'll continue as planned, and his intel chief and former senior spies say that's a good thing. Moreover, they say it's simply not that big of a deal.
"Candidates only get parts of briefings," said former CIA officer David Priess, who wrote The President's Book of Secrets, and briefed the attorney general, national security advisor, and the FBI director during George W. Bush's administration.
"They receive a no-kidding, top-secret, classified briefing, based on intelligence sources that are highly classified," he said. But there's one important omission: the brief doesn't include information about "covert actions, intelligence sources, and methods."
In other words: Trump and Clinton will get nothing like the President's Daily Brief, the "crown jewel of US intelligence," as Priess calls it. To read that coveted document, they will have to wait until after the election — because the president-elect gets the PDB, too. (You too can read the Presidential Daily Briefs — from the 1960s. The CIA declassified them last year, and they can be found here.)
According to John McLaughlin, who served as deputy director and acting director of the CIA from 2000 to 2004 and has briefed candidates and sitting presidents, both Clinton and Trump should receive briefings — despite the FBI director's admonishing of Clinton over her handling of classified emails and the "sloppiness" of Trump's comments. The intelligence community, he said, should be non-partisan.
"Trump has said some things that I strongly disagree with, but that's not a reason for denying a briefing," McLaughlin said. "In fact it may be a reason to give him a briefing, in order to give him a better understanding of these issues that are dramatically more complex than he seems to understand."
The briefings aren't mandated by law; they are a tradition, started by President Harry Truman, who ordered them for Republican candidate Dwight Eisenhower and Democrat Adlai Stevenson during the 1952 election.
Past presidential candidates have received one briefing, others requested more, and some asked for none, for various reasons. Priess said Bob Dole didn't request one in 1996, because he was already Senate majority leader and thus was entitled to receive robust intelligence briefings. Walter Mondale in 1984 didn't either, but because the Minnesota senator expected to lose to Ronald Reagan. Jimmy Carter in 1976 and Bill Clinton in 1992 both asked for extra briefings, possibly to bolster their knowledge of international issues since they were, as governors, dealing only with the affairs of Georgia and Arkansas respectively.
Briefings can be conducted in locations around the country, with one key provision: They have to be conducted in carefully vetted places, called SCIFs in intel-speak — "sensitive compartmented information facilities."
The SCIF may sound more technical than it actually is, says McLaughlin, who briefed Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry several times in 2004 and was one of two briefers for Bill Clinton during the three months when he was president-elect. He said the briefings can take place in the candidate's home, on the campaign trail in a hotel room, or in a secure facility like a federal building.
"The briefers are preceded by security officials to insure the location's security, and who make sure you're in an environment that's not insecure on some basis, and they also go with the briefers so they're on the scene providing physical security while you're there," he said. "They do a very thorough inspection of the area, with technical gear to make sure that you're in an environment that isn't monitored in some way."
McLaughlin said the strangest place he conducted a briefing was for vice presidential candidate John Edwards in 2004 at a Best Western hotel in Scranton, Pennsylvania.
Priess said the briefings can also be done in secure government facilities. There are several around the nation, "which is good, because on the campaign trail you can't get back to Washington." For example, Mitt Romney in 2012 got the first of his two briefings at a federal building while campaigning in Los Angeles, and another ten days later in Washington.
"The real training comes after they get elected"
The idea behind the briefings was, originally, to spare the new president an embarrassment like the one that Truman suffered. He did not find out that the US was building nuclear weapons, under the super-secret Manhattan Project, until 12 days after he took the oath of office upon the death of Franklin Roosevelt in April 1945.
"Truman was shocked when he came in: he had not been let in on Manhattan Project — so he put the briefing for the candidates in place, to make sure no one was as blindsided as he was," Priess said.
But the point of the briefings has changed since Truman first ordered them. These days, the briefing is intended to protect the future president from backing him- or herself, or the sitting president, into a corner.
"It's good government to make sure that the people campaigning for the most important job in the world have a sense of what the best analysis of the situation is, so that they don't say something that could harm the interests of the United States inadvertently," Priess said. "The real training comes after they get elected."
A classic case of this was Jimmy Carter, who asked to receive the intelligence briefing even before he won the nomination. Then-President Gerald Ford agreed.
"I wanted particularly not to make any inadvertent mistake that would complicate things for President Ford... or later for me," Carter told John Helgerson for his book on intelligence briefings during presidential transitions, Getting To Know the President.
"Given the complicated issues and situation in the world, I would not be surprised if the current candidates wanted more than two briefings."
Since 2004, the briefings are overseen by the Director of National Intelligence — a position created after the September 11, 2001 attacks to oversee the sprawling, 16-agency US intelligence community. McLaughlin said the format is worked out between the sitting president and the candidate, and the candidate can request how many briefings they'd like to receive and how they receive them.
"In recent years most candidates have had two, maybe three updates as the campaign has gone along," he said. "Given the complicated issues and situation in the world, I would not be surprised if the current candidates wanted more than two."
The former CIA acting director said that sometimes the candidates will give the briefers a list of subjects that they want covered, and the briefer will answer their follow-up questions.
Any information that is elicited from one candidate's questions will be provided to the other, so both are at "parity," Priess said.
"It's amazing," he said. "The sitting president offering the other party, regardless of politics, to get intel briefings."
As for calls from some quarters that Trump be denied the briefing or given a different version because of his campaign's alleged favorable view of Russia and his overt friendliness towards Vladimir Putin, an adversary of the US, that just isn't going to happen.
"The same briefing is delivered to both candidates," Priess said.
So, either Clinton and Trump both get the same info, or neither gets any, should President Obama decide to withhold the briefings. But that would be unprecedented in seven decades.
"They've been offered now for 70 years, and it would be shocking if we had a sitting president who didn't offer these briefings to the candidates," Priess said. "It would take something shocking to change this."
McLaughlin, the former CIA deputy director, agrees. "This is an unprecedented year, but no candidate has ever been denied these briefings, and I don't think we should start now," he said. "You are making the assumption that they are going to handle the briefing responsibly — if it turns out that one of them does not, then that would be a matter for considering whether they would receive a second briefing."
Follow Benjamin Gilbert on Twitter: @benrgilbert