After his official nomination, Donald Trump, like all major party candidates, will be granted access to classified information in national security briefings delivered by the intelligence community. In a May episode of the Slate Trumpcast, Jacob Weisberg interviewed John McLaughlin, a former acting director and deputy director of the CIA, about these briefings. To listen to that podcast, click the player below:
A lightly edited transcript of that conversation follows.
Jacob Weisberg: So you have given a security briefing to presidential candidates in the past. What happens in those briefings?
John McLaughlin: Well, each one is a separate and unique situation, and the way it works is determined primarily through a discussion between the White House and the candidate or the candidate’s advisers. So some candidates want to be briefed once, and that’s it, for a short period of time. Others like periodic updates, and they work that out with the White House. And in terms of what happens, a briefer shows up and the briefer has a series of issues that he or she is going to take the candidate through, typically the ones that are in the headlines. Today, you can imagine it might be Syria, Iran, North Korea, Russia, China—things that a candidate who aspires to be president probably ought to know about in terms of what’s available privately as well as publicly
And then it really depends on the candidate. Sometimes the candidate will sit and listen. Sometimes a candidate will interrupt frequently and really take the conversation where he or she wants to go. That more frequently is the case, in my experience. And sometimes they will have an adviser with them. That has to be worked out with the White House as well. And that’s the basic drill.
Weisberg: I think I read you briefed George W. Bush before he was president and also John Kerry before he was not president. Is that right?
McLaughlin: Correct, correct. [Laughs.] Those two, and also John Edwards. Occasionally a vice presidential candidate or the team will request that both presidential and vice presidential candidates be briefed. That’s the only occasion that I was personally involved in that I remember that being the case, when it was Kerry and Edwards.
Weisberg: So how classified is the information you get into in those briefings? Is it comparable to the level of briefing a president gets when in office, or is it something short of that?
McLaughlin: Well, it’s very close. In my experience, this kind of varies from administration to administration in terms of how much freedom the briefer has to go deep. 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. Typically, the rule I always had in my mind was the candidate can be briefed on just about everything except things that are not widely shared within the national security team itself in the government.
So take, as an example, the operation that was mounted in 2011 to take down Bin Laden. If there had been a candidate briefing, say, two or three months before that operation, it almost certainly would not have been discussed because there were many people in senior levels of government who didn’t know about it. It was that tightly held. But beyond those things, I had freedom from the administration to go where I thought the candidate needed to go to understand an issue.
Weisberg: Now does the presidential candidate need or get a security clearance before receiving classified information?
McLaughlin: Not to my knowledge. Conceivably something went on behind the scenes that I wasn’t aware of, but to my knowledge the assumption is that if they’ve gotten that far there’s no point in clearing them because they’re cleared by election, essentially, as are most congressmen and senators.
Weisberg: So you may see what I’m driving at, John, but what if you were in a position as a briefer briefing someone who wouldn’t pass a security clearance, who you might feel is just fundamentally not trustworthy?
McLaughlin: Again, 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. Who am I to judge, sitting there, that this person would or would not pass a clearance? You may have concerns about someone based on their public persona. You know, people have asked me, for example, what about Trump? He seems to blurt things out. He seems himself very improvisational.
If you stop and think about it, any presidential candidate is in the competition of their lives. They will never be in a more competitive, higher-stakes competition. So the temptation to somehow take what you’re giving them and bend it to political purposes has to be there in every case. At some level, you have to count on them as patriotic Americans to do the right thing.
Weisberg: But let me give you a hypothetical. I mean, it sounds like if there was information about a threat of an impending terrorist attack, that would be the kind of thing, absent information about sources and so on, that could be in the briefing. Boy, it’s easy for me to imagine Trump using that in a political context and hard for me to imagine him keeping it confidential.
McLaughlin: Well, try and imagine it, I guess would be my advice to you. I think the more interesting thing with Mr. Trump would be just how he absorbs discordant information because in an intelligence briefing you’re almost certain to hear things that are at odds with your preconceptions, and you’ve got to deal with that. Politics exists in a very different world than intelligence.
In politics, people take whatever facts they possess, or what they judge to be facts, and they stack them up and rearrange them and come up with a conclusion that favors their point of view and then the other side takes the very same set of facts and stacks them up and rearranges them to come out with their point of view. I think we call that spin, don’t we?
Weisberg: [Laughs.] Yes.
McLaughlin: There is no spin in intelligence. There can’t be. By definition, anyone who is doing intelligence right is going to just lay it out there. Sometimes you’re going to hear something that doesn’t accord with what you thought was the case or perhaps even what you were saying publicly is the case.
Weisberg: So you are watching the candidate, or the president elect, to see how they absorb information, how they respond to information that maybe conflicts with what they thought, and figuring out for the future, potentially, how to get through to them, how to communicate with them.
McLaughlin: Yes, and they’re telling you. It’s a conversation. In my experience it’s always been a conversation. Let’s take a hypothetical. I think Mr. Trump has called for backing away from Korea and Japan. We could back away from them as allies or be less involved as allies if they didn’t pay more for their defense. Well, an intelligence briefer, at that point, might just work into the briefing the fact that Japan has been paying $2 billion for stationing our troops on their territory under a four-year agreement that comes up, I think, for renewal in 2016.
And so the question would be, ‘Is that enough?’ I don’t know if Mr. Trump knows that, that they’ve been paying $2 billion. I can see circumstances, and this is true of any candidate, but it might be a little truer in Mr. Trump’s case, where what you’re saying rubs up against, in an unpleasant way, stuff that he believes or has said.
Weisberg: Mr. Trump has also suggested policies that violate America law, or international law, such as torture. Would you be in a position, as a briefer, whether he asked about it or not, to say, “Mr. Trump, we heard you say that, but you can’t do that as president.”
McLaughlin: Again, you wouldn’t go in with an agenda of things that you’re going to tell him, along the lines of, “Dear Mr. Candidate, here are all the things you’ve said that are wrong.” You wouldn’t start that way. You would just start with your briefing. Now if that issue arose, probably in the context of a question from him, about how many captures is the government doing and how you are treating the captives, you would explain that in terms of treating detainees these days the U.S. government is bound by the Army Field Manual and by executive order and I believe by laws now that determined the techniques you could use. And then it would be up to him to say, “Well, what about this?” And you would just in a very matter of fact way say, “Well, that is not permitted anymore under current law.”
Weisberg: “And when I get in we are going to change all that.”
McLaughlin: You know, I’ve had candidates say things like that to me: “When I become president”—I won’t name candidates, but I’ve had candidates say to me, “Well, when I become president we’re going to change that.” You don’t debate them at that point. That’s not your job.
Weisberg: You suggested that the president has a fair amount of discretion about what might be included in such a briefing, I realize it would be unprecedented, but could the president or the national security adviser say, “In this case, we’re not going to give a classified briefing to the nominee of a major party.”
McLaughlin: That would be unprecedented and technically, technically, that could happen because ultimately the president in the executive branch owns this information and is responsible for its classification and its declassification. So technically that could happen. It’s hard for me to imagine that happening, frankly.
Weisberg: And in terms of what is probable, who do you think would be the likely person or agency representative to do this briefing, now that you’re retired?
McLaughlin: Well, in my day, it used to almost always be led by a CIA officer. I had taken, on a number of occasions, someone from other agencies. I took once to Kerry briefings the deputy director of the FBI because I felt that discussion of potential for domestic terror attacks was important. These days I think the decision on who does the briefing is not in the CIA director’s hands. It’s in the hands of the director of national intelligence, who would be Jim Clapper. Basically, you want someone who is going to be knowledgeable and able to handle themselves in that situation.