Nominations bestowed, presidential candidates to receive classified briefings

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GWEN IFILL: Now that they have won their respective party nominations, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are eligible to receive classified intelligence briefings.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper indicated the offers for such briefings are going out this week. But what kind of secrets will Trump and Clinton become privy to? Some partisans have been suggesting neither candidate can be trusted with that information.

Margaret Warner has been looking at genesis of those briefings, and she joins me now.

Margaret, when did this become a political football?

MARGARET WARNER, Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent: Just in this election, Gwen.

This has been going on ever since Harry Truman became president suddenly and didn’t even know about the Manhattan Project in 1945, decided he didn’t want any president, future president-elect to be faced with this.

And it’s just gone on. And some candidates use it a lot. Some candidates don’t avail themselves much. But this year, as you said, partisans have been attacking both candidates as being untrustworthy with the information.

At the Aspen security conference last week, James Clapper, the head of — the DNI, said he had — quote — “no hesitation” and, in fact, that teams of professionals had already been assigned to each candidate.

But there was a lot of scuttlebutt. There were a lot of spooks and former spooks, as I like to describe them, at this conference. And there were quite a few questions, frankly, about whether Trump would even avail himself of them, since he said, “I know more about ISIS than the generals.”

So…

GWEN IFILL: How does it work? I mean, do they go to the CIA and get the briefing? Does the CIA come to them?

MARGARET WARNER: It’s a combo of both.

They try to make sure it’s a secure location. Part of it depends on whether they have asked for the overview or a deep dive on one topic. So, they might just make a hotel room secure. They might even set up what is called a SCIF, which is a special secure facility, or just sweep it.

Other times, they have to go to the local FBI office. But the scope of the information is really broad, general intelligence assessments. There’s no discussion of covert operations, for example. So if someone were to say, well, who is your source in the Iranian government, I’m not allowed to say, sir.

That changes dramatically when someone becomes a president-elect. Then there are teams literally, I’m told, at the headquarters of each candidate, and the next morning is delivered to him or her the presidential daily brief.

GWEN IFILL: Which is really the top-top-secret documents.

MARGARET WARNER: That’s covert ops. That’s a lot. That’s sources and methods. None of that is going to be revealed now.

GWEN IFILL: Has it been ever withheld from anyone, this kind of briefing?

MARGARET WARNER: No, never withheld, but, as I said, many don’t avail themselves. I think Ronald Reagan had only one. Bill Clinton had only one. This is all according to a great history log that is written by John…

(CROSSTALK)

GWEN IFILL: Why wouldn’t you — why wouldn’t avail yourself?

MARGARET WARNER: As it’s been explained to me, just think about what we have got in the next 98 days.

These men and women are focused on winning. They’re focused on the debates. They’re focused on the money raising. They’re focused on the state-by-state count. Their level of interest may not be as high as we think it should be.

Secondly, one senior intelligence official, actually Mike Hayden, a former director and deputy director of the CIA said — of the NSA — said, you know, they don’t really want too know too much, because they don’t want to be caught in the debate and say, can I say that? Where did I get that information?

GWEN IFILL: Has that ever happened, where someone has inadvertently blabbed?

MARGARET WARNER: I asked that, and apparently not that anyone could think of.

And, again, as Hayden said, they know it’s akin to the death penalty to let something like that slip. But there is — if I may go on…

GWEN IFILL: Sure.

MARGARET WARNER: … there’s a huge difference in the level of intelligence that’s given at this stage.

And Mike Morell, former deputy director and director temporary of the CIA, had to brief McCain and Palin. And he said, so you walk in with John McCain from Armed Services Committee and Intel Committee, one of the great experts in the Senate, immediately, it’s going very deep. He knows a lot.

But he said, you know, with a Sarah Palin, he said it’s like national security 101, and it’s very broad and it’s very general, and you have got to give a lot of history. And that will probably apply this time with Trump and Secretary Clinton.

As one said to me, Secretary Clinton, she will probably walk in and say, so, where were we? She’s learned these secrets for a long, long time, even though not in the last two years.

GWEN IFILL: Do vice presidential candidates get them as well?

MARGARET WARNER: Yes, they do.

GWEN IFILL: So, the only person of the four who doesn’t have Washington experience would be Donald Trump.

MARGARET WARNER: That’s right.

GWEN IFILL: And, therefore, would be classified briefing 101, as you put it.

(LAUGHTER)

GWEN IFILL: Margaret Warner, thank you so much.

MARGARET WARNER: My pleasure.

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