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Intelligence Officials Share Concerns, But 'Will Step Up' To Continue With Briefings


Now that they're officially their parties' nominees, presidential candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton will soon begin to get national intelligence briefings. Critics of both candidates are uneasy with the idea. Some worry Trump is too close to Vladimir Putin. Others bring up Clinton's carelessness with a private email server. John McLaughlin served as deputy CIA director under presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. He joins us now.

Good morning.

JOHN MCLAUGHLIN: Hello. Good morning, Elise.

HU: First, why do presidential candidates, some who aren't elected officials, get intelligence briefings? And what kind of briefings do they get?

MCLAUGHLIN: Well, this tradition goes back to President Harry Truman, who decided, when Dwight Eisenhower was running for president and Adlai Stevenson back in 1952, that they needed to have some sense for what was going on in the world of foreign policy, given the tumult of that time. So it's been a tradition since then.

And the theory is that one of these two people will become president of the United States. And so fairly early on in their candidacy after nomination, they should get some kind of a briefing on what the government, particularly from the intelligence point of view, thinks is going on in the world.

HU: The Washington Post quoted a senior intelligence official who said he would not participate in any session with Donald Trump. What are you hearing from your friends in the intelligence community on this topic?

MCLAUGHLIN: I guess I would say this - my understanding and my experience is that intelligence professionals will step up to this and do it. The director of central intelligence, James Clapper, spoke on this matter - senior intelligence official in the United States - and he basically said we have teams ready to go and do this. I know there's a lot of controversy about both candidates. But, you know, the intelligence ethic here is you stay out of politics.

HU: Do you personally feel comfortable with Donald Trump getting briefed?

MCLAUGHLIN: I do in the sense. You know, I'd be among those who would say I think some of the things he said have been close to disqualifying. I mean, some of the things he said about our fidelity to our alliances to countries in NATO are, to me, shocking things coming from a presidential candidate. But on the other hand, if I were directing this, I would not have reservations about having him briefed. In fact, I would think it is all the more important that he be briefed.

HU: We also can't forget that Hillary Clinton was just recently reprimanded by the FBI for her quote, "careless handling of sensitive material." Do you share concerns about her?

MCLAUGHLIN: No. My take on Hillary Clinton would be what she did with the email server was a mistake, and she's acknowledged that. On the other hand, this is a person who is so accustomed to intelligence briefings. I mean, she had a daily briefer every day who briefed her as secretary of state on essentially what the president was getting at the same time, that I would think her posture in these briefings would be more in the mode of now where were we? - I wouldn't have any reservations.

HU: And finally, are there dangers to not briefing candidates?

MCLAUGHLIN: I think there are. The danger of not briefing them is that on the day they walk into office, it is, all of a sudden, upon them that there are these complexities they didn't understand. Things don't get to the president's desk unless they're hard. Someone else deals with all the easy stuff. By the time it gets to the president, it's complicated, and the choices are almost always all bad. So the sooner they start to understand and get a sense of flavor for that, the better.

HU: John McLaughlin is former acting director of the CIA. Thanks for speaking with us.

MCLAUGHLIN: You bet. Thank you, Elise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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