The end of the Democratic nominating convention fires the starting gun of a new, more intense phase of the 2016 campaign. It also gives the green light to a routine process that is generating unusual controversy this year: classified briefings for the two candidates vying to become the intelligence community’s “first customer.”
A senior U.S. intelligence official said the briefings would not occur until Democrats wrap up the business of nominating Hillary Clinton, but would not set a precise date.
When they happen, they’ll take place at a secure facility, likely with a team of senior intelligence community analysts, on one day or over a few days if a candidate wants to delve deeply into one topic. It’ll be a one-off review of major national security concerns — unlike the president, they won’t get daily briefings through the election. And Director of National Intelligence James Clapper will decide which aides to the candidate may attend.
The sessions have already been the subject of political controversy. Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan has pointed to Clinton’s email controversy to argue that she is unworthy to receive the briefings. Donald Trump’s unfiltered style and his fondness for Russian President Vladimir Putin have led Democratic Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid to say the GOP nominee should likewise be denied.
Not everyone agrees. Former Attorney General Eric Holder questioned in a Yahoo News interview on Wednesday whether Trump “has got the gray matter, the instinctual ability, the experience to simply be the commander in chief” but stopped short of saying he shouldn’t get the briefings.
“I wouldn’t go that far,” he said. “I would have to think that if he was given the daily brief, even he would be capable of understanding that this is not the kind of thing that you discuss in public or try to make political gain from it.”
At the White House, press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters on Thursday that the briefings would go forward according to tradition and that the two candidates would get the same information.
“The administration is confident that they can both provide relevant and sufficient briefings to the two major party presidential candidates, while also protecting sensitive national security information,” Earnest said.
Current and former intelligence officials who served Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush have told Yahoo News those concerns might be real but are overblown. The briefings are top secret, these officials say, but omit truly sensitive information like the sources and methods used to scoop up the intelligence, or ongoing covert operations.
“The candidates are not given the crown jewels, and these are more courtesy briefings,” a retired senior intelligence official who served under Bush told Yahoo News.
“So a candidate might hear how concerned we are about Iran’s support for [Syrian strongman Bashar] Assad but won’t be told we tapped someone’s phone or whatever,” another former senior official said. “If the SEALs are on their way somewhere, that’s also not something they get.”
A third former official, who asked not to be quoted, said that the two candidates might not be offered much more than Clapper gives Congress in public at annual worldwide threat assessment hearings — but that the secret nature of the conversation is necessary in order to enable the potential commander in chief to get answers to sensitive questions.
In fact, to hear several officials tell it, the briefings are as much about gathering intelligence as sharing it.
“The candidates will, of course, leave the briefing with an assessment of the IC [intelligence community] and the analysts,” Michael Morell, a former deputy CIA director known to lean toward Clinton, told Yahoo News. “But, at the same time, the briefers will leave with an assessment of the candidates — largely because they will be thinking about what a candidate would be like, if she/he became the ‘first customer,’ which is what analysis at CIA like to call a president.”
“In the old days, some DCIs used it to develop good relationships to stay on,” the anonymous former Bush adviser said, using the abbreviation for director of central intelligence. That might be different in 2016 because “no one expects Clapper or [CIA Director John] Brennan to remain, regardless of who wins.”
What the candidates get out of the briefings depends in part on what they put in, according to officials familiar with the process.
Morell said the session with Clinton will likely “delve into issues deeply and … be a dialogue between the briefers and the secretary.”
In Trump’s case, he said, the briefing will be “more of a tutorial, more of a first cut at the issues, with the need to provide history and background on issues — if he approaches the briefing with an open mind and a willingness to learn.”
“This difference is simply because the secretary is starting at a much greater level of understanding based on her experience working these issues, her experience working with the IC and her knowledge of the IC judgments,” Morell said. “Trump will be starting at square one.”
President Harry Truman, who came to office unaware that America had successfully developed the atomic bomb, started the tradition in 1952. President Obama has the authority to order the briefings, but his aides say he is deferring this year to Clapper, who will decide what sort of information the candidates get.
Things change quickly after the votes are counted in November, with the winner in line to get a less detailed version of the presidential daily brief (PDB). On election day in 2008, the intelligence community had briefing teams on the ground in Phoenix and Chicago — headquarters of the campaigns of Sens. John McCain and Obama, respectively — according to former CIA Director Michael Hayden.
“We kept covert action and sensitive collection out of the routine PDBs in 2008,” Hayden told Yahoo News. “That said, I gave the president- and vice president-elect a detailed covert action briefing in mid-December.”
It’s up to the sitting president to decide what gets told and to whom.
“President Bush’s rule was that anyone who had been formally announced for a position that would get the PDB once in office, would get the PDB during the interregnum,” Hayden said.
It will be up to Obama, poised to shed his “first customer” status, to make the same decision.
Daniel Klaidman of Yahoo News contributed reporting.