There has been a lot of talk lately about the intelligence briefings that the presidential candidates will soon receive.
With the sitting president’s approval, both candidates will be offered a general lay down of the global situation as they come out of their conventions. These sessions will feel more like a college seminar on steroids than a detailed operations or covert action briefing. That’s as it should be. They’re designed to be an overview and the candidates don’t need the operational details, at least not yet.
These sessions won’t happen often. Some candidates are uncomfortable with getting too much intelligence at this point as they are not yet well practiced separating what they learn in a classified briefing from those things they want to emphasize on the stump. Better not to make that too hard.
And then there is always the question of time. Preparing for and attending these meetings subtracts from precious campaign energy. Take a session or two. Look serious. Move on.
On election night, though, there will be highly skilled teams ready to brief the soon to be president-elect on the actual PDB (the President’s Daily Brief). Frankly, this step is a robust tribute to the peaceful transfer of power in this nation. Get the votes, get the book. That’s all there is to it.
The book will likely be stripped of some operational details since those would be of no use to the president-elect, but other than that the book will be just like the one being shown in the oval that morning
The briefing team will take some private joy in the dynamic that the briefing will create, and it doesn’t matter which of the two candidates ends up winning. This is the permanent government’s opportunity to impress upon any winning candidate its view of the world, its appreciation of risks and its understanding of global dilemmas.
I suspect a briefing to a President-elect Hillary Clinton would be fairly routine. The briefers will know her, be familiar with her worldview, and she in turn will understand the intelligence baseline on which the material is being presented. After all, she was getting this regularly four years ago.
None of that would apply to a President-elect Trump for whom a lot of this will be genuinely unfamiliar turf. Out of the gate, there will be a bit of a presentation problem as briefings in general usually begin from a more or less agreed-upon view of the present and take the listener into the less well-known or less agreed on. Determining what President-elect Trump truly believes and then organizing a presentation with that as a departure point could be challenging.
If some of his campaign rhetoric really does translate into his plan for governing (the wall, mass deportations, killing noncombatants, abrogating the Iran deal, tolerating nukes in Korea and Japan, shutting out Muslims, etc.), the sessions should be pretty lively. That’s not totally unprecedented. Candidates and presidents often push back. But I suspect that we may hit a new level here.
What happens, for example, after being told by the president-elect that we are now going to settle things in the Middle East by defeating the Islamic State quickly and ruthlessly, when an analyst tries to respond with, “Yes, sir, but we believe strongly that we can’t kill our way out of this mess.” Worse yet, what if the analyst is too cowed/intimated/polite to say so?
The president-elect will also be briefed on ongoing covert actions. And here the very purpose of the session demands that he be briefed in detail. Even though he’s president-elect, this is a decision briefing.
I began my meeting with President-elect Obama in mid-December, 2008 with the words “Mr. President-elect, I’m going to brief you on all the covert actions currently underway. These have all been authorized by the president. But the authorization comes from the office — not the person — of the president, so absent any action on your part, all of these will be going forward on the afternoon of 20 January [Inauguration Day].”
That introduction is designed to impress and it usually does. President-elect Obama was carefully attentive as I went through the details of every covert action then underway.
There’s no holding back here. If you’re asking someone to allow a covert action to continue, he or she deserves a level of knowledge that shows the rationale, the potential gains and especially the undeniable risks involved.
Although President-elect Obama was very focused, it was hard to read him until we came to renditions, detentions and interrogations. There he had questions and wanted explanations. We also discussed CIA’s role in the targeted killing program along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border that had recently been accelerated.
In the end, the new president supported most of what we were doing, with the obvious and very public exception of the detention and interrogation program, which he closed once in office … while keeping open his options for renditions.
Sadly, there’s not much runway here. The new president will be making tough choices pretty much immediately.
That’s another reason why this election will matter.
• Gen. Michael Hayden is a former director of the CIA and the National Security Agency. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.