How presidents normally handle national secrets

WASHINGTON – U.S. presidents have privately shared sensitive intelligence with foreign leaders – including at least one Russian president – but only after a rigorous review to make sure the benefits outweighed the risks, according to one of the foremost experts on how commanders in chief consume and use the nation’s secrets.

Yahoo News spoke to David Priess, the author of “The President’s Book of Secrets,” in the wake of bombshell reports that President Trump disclosed highly sensitive information to Russian officials in the Oval Office last week.


1. How does intelligence typically get to the president?

“There are two main mechanisms,” Priess explained.

First, there is the president’s daily brief, known in Washington as the PDB. “It has been delivered by hand, in a book, for more than 50 years, though some presidents also choose to take in-person briefings,” Priess said.

Second, since the 1960s, presidents have also often received classified communication in the secure Situation Room in the basement of the White House. “There, the president can have direct access to diplomatic cables, human intelligence reports, intercepted communications, as they stream in in real time,” Priess said. More commonly, however, presidents get information filtered through top aides, notably the national security adviser.

U.S. President Donald Trump meets with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, left, next to Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Sergei Kislyak at the White House in Washington, Wednesday, May 10, 2017. (Photo: Russian Foreign Ministry Photo via AP)
President Trump meets with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, left, and Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak at the White House in Washington on May 10, 2017. (Photo: Russian Foreign Ministry Photo via AP)

There are other ways; presidents can request classified briefings on specific topics if they want a more in-depth understanding of a given situation.

2. Is the president told where on the classification scale a given piece of information is?

“In my experience, and in the interviews I did with the former living presidents and CIA directors and other top officials, rarely would the president be told a general classification level,” Priess said. “That does not happen.”

Instead, the entire PDB “is assumed to be classified at the top secret level,” and exceptionally sensitive information is highlighted for the president, he explained.

3. Does the president have an “absolute right” to share classified information?

“I don’t know anyone who disputes that,” Priess said. Classification authority isn’t granted by Congress; “it’s a constitutional right of the presidency, derived from their authority as commander in chief,” he added. “So the president is the supreme classification authority and the supreme de-classification authority.”

But Trump appears not to have followed the usual path for providing secrets to foreign officials, according to Priess. “Normally what happens is there is an extensive process for sharing info with foreign governments,” in which senior officials carefully assess the risks of sharing versus the benefits. “By the president’s tweets this morning, he seems to say that process was not followed, and instead information was shared on a whim,” Priess said. “That’s what is disturbing the intelligence community.”

4. How often do presidents reveal classified information to foreign actors?

Former President George W. Bush sometimes invited foreign leaders to his presidential daily brief, Priess said. “But what happened was, his chief of staff Andy Card told me, is he asked the intelligence community if he could do this – he did not say it should be one, and that gave the intelligence community time to ensure that the PDBs would be very special books,” edited for foreign consumption, he said.

During one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visits to Bush’s ranch in tiny Crawford, Texas, he was invited to attend the PDB, Priess recalled. “There was a scramble inside the intelligence community to get information that could be cleared for the Russians,” he said. Other world leaders who sat in on Bush’s PDB included British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and Spanish Prime Minister José María Aznar.

5. How bad is this latest disclosure?

“It’s impossible to tell, actually,” because the Washington Post, which broke the story, withheld what it described as the most sensitive information, Priess said. “We may never know.”


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