The Intelligence Community Casts Its Vote for Hillary Clinton

Since Donald Trump all-but sealed the nomination the other day, there has been a bit of a tizzy because he’ll receive intelligence briefing(s). Several spooks and former spooks complained to the Daily Beast that Trump might run his mouth and let something slip.

And that prospect has some spies sweating. Trump, who can’t seem to dam his stream of consciousness on Twitter, and who has lately taken to spreading rumors and conspiracy theories on national television, has never been privy to national secrets. Nor has he ever demonstrated that he’s capable of keeping them.

“My concern with Trump will be that he inadvertently leaks, because as he speaks extemporaneously, he’ll pull something out of his hat that he heard in a briefing and say it,” said a former senior U.S. intelligence official who has participated in the process of briefing presidential candidates.

[snip]

“It’s not an unreasonable concern that he’ll talk publicly about what’s supposed to stay in that room,” said another former senior intelligence official.

A currently serving U.S. official echoed some of those anxieties and wondered whether Trump would respect the discretion of the briefing and not use it to his advantage on the campaign trail.

The DB piece admits that Hillary is under investigation for mishandling classified information, with her presumptive National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan among the staffers who forwarded emails the CIA claims (dubiously) to be super secret (curiously, this flurry of Trump briefing stories came on the same date the FBI was leaking to CNN that thus far they’ve got nothing against Hillary). It doesn’t mention that Leon Panetta, who leaked classified information for political gain, is also among Hillary’s advisors.

WaPo’s Greg Miller airs more concerns from the spooks, including that intelligence briefers would be uncomfortable briefing people who have close business ties to rivals or adversaries, not to mention people who espouse torture.

Analysts selected for such assignments tend to be among the most polished and experienced in the intelligence community. “They are going to be very professional,” Peritz said, but Trump poses unique complications. “He has all kinds of relationships with Chinese investors and Russian investors. He’s spoken very highly of our adversaries. And he’s talked about using torture and waterboarding and attacking people’s families. All these things are going through the analysts’ minds.”

Huh? The CIA doesn’t have anyone left over who briefed Dick Cheney? Because those guys surely knew he talked about torture and waterboarding! Or how about the folks who briefed Obama before someone killed Anwar al-Awlaki’s teenage son? And if Hillary, with all her ties to Clinton Global Initiatives people, can be briefed, I’m not sure why Trump can’t, with his business ties. It’s not as if the Russians and Chinese haven’t already stolen the secrets that Trump would get.

Look. Michele Bachmann served on the House Intelligence Committee for four years. She’s every bit as unpredictable as Donald Trump. And aside from that time she claimed that jihadis had already tried to penetrate 6 of the 15 Pakistani nuclear sites that were vulnerable — a detail that had already been reported to the press — she never ran her mouth more than, say, Marco Rubio when he leaked details about the implementation of USA Freedom Act earlier this year.

The point is, all this Sturm und Drang about Trump getting intelligence briefings ignores all the other leakage that already goes on by people the Intelligence Community doesn’t seem worried about briefing. All the more so given what Charlie Savage notes — that this is just one limited briefing; Trump won’t get to learn the good stuff until after he wins the Presidency.

Michael J. Morell, a former deputy C.I.A. director, who regularly briefed Mr. Obama before retiring in 2013, said the postconvention nominee briefing would last several hours. The idea is to “get them to understand that they have now stepped into a bigger world” in which foreign allies, adversaries, and neutral parties are paying close attention to whatever they say, and that their words may have broad consequences, he said.

Michael E. Leiter, a former director of the National Counterterrorism Center, provided the terrorism portion of the briefing that Mr. Obama received after he became the Democratic nominee in 2008. Mr. Leiter said the post-convention briefings lay out a significant amount of important and sensitive information.

“You are not trying to give them a tactical update on the issues of the day, but to lay out the full panoply of issues that they are going to face; the good, the bad, and the ugly of what the world looks like and what implications there may be going forward,” he said.

Both former officials said that the postconvention briefing for nominees would contain top secret information, but not a discussion of the sources and methods used to gather it, or any description of covert operations.

Raising the specter of classified information is nice. But this seems to be more a statement of preference for Hillary Clinton, and a continuation of the status quo, with all its questionable aggression, than a case against Trump, no matter how bad his foreign policy would be (though his domestic policy against minorities would be worse than his foreign policy). The spooks want Hillary and a continuation of their current plans.

Plus, all this whining ignores something else.

Although the Executive does so by very broadly interpreting the relevant precedents, for decades, Presidents have claimed — and the Intelligence Community has backed that claim fully — that they have unlimited discretion to classify or declassify information. The idea is that if some guy can get elected, he can decide what counts as classified in this country.

If that would be a problem with Trump, then maybe now is the time to start thinking about codifying some limits to giving popularly elected Presidents unfettered discretion to play with classified information? I, frankly, don’t want Hillary to have that authority either (or any President!). You never know when someone is going to leak an officer’s identity just for political gain, after all.

But the IC has for decades agreed with a system in which the President has complete, arbitrary control over what counts as classified. That’s the underlying problem. Not that Donald Trump might get a single intelligence briefing.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

9 replies
  1. martin says:

    Michael J. Morell, a former deputy C.I.A. director, who regularly briefed Mr. Obama before retiring in 2013, said the postconvention nominee briefing would last several hours. The idea is to “get them to understand that they have now stepped into a bigger world” in which foreign allies, adversaries, and neutral parties are paying close attention to whatever they say, and that their words may have broad consequences, he said.”unquote

    He added..”Broad consequences like..ahem..JFK …consequences. Hear what I’m sayin? Oh, btw, the CIA doesn’t work for you. You work for us. Comprende’ Mr. Trump? Good. Now what was that you were saying about torture? We’re all ears. ”

    Always wanted to be a fly on the wall at a Presidents first CIA briefing. That’s the day all their campaign promises go up in smoke.

    quote”I, frankly, don’t want Hillary to have that authority either (or any President!). You never know when someone is going to leak an officer’s identity just for political gain, after all.”unquote

    But gee whilikers emptywheel. Just think. Fodder for another book. :)

    On a side note, I hope Murica get’s who it deserves. I despise Clinton and Trump both. But I would rather see Trump disembowel the status quo than have the status quo carry on. Even if he makes a fool of Murika, which it already is, but hey. The only thing I would be afraid of is fascism taking over. Frankly though, I’ve got $25 that says Congress will impeach him within 100 days if he becomes President. After all, he won’t keep his trap shut for one day. I do wonder who both of them will pick for VP. I think that’s going to make a huge difference in who people vote for ultimately.

  2. lefty665 says:

    Wash Post headline this morning, “Investigators: Scant evidence Hillary had malicious intent in handling emails”.
    .
    Help please, is subverting FOIA not malicious? Malicious intent on the part of Govt, including Hillary as Sec State and staff, seems to be why the judges are allowing discovery in the FOIA suits.
    .
    Also, intelligence disclosure laws do not address intent, simply mishandling of classified material. Why is intent suddenly now the standard? I could understand “intent” if the potential charges were espionage, but that does not seem to be the issue here. I agree that some of the CIA inspired classification seems spurious, but there were a batch in the last disclosures that State agreed were very sensitive. So sensitive in fact that we know nothing about them. They have been entirely redacted as in no to, from, subject or any text.
    .
    Is setting an impossibly high standard for wrongdoing evidence that the fix is in?

  3. GKJames says:

    We’re between rock and hard place. In principle, it’s a great idea to codify this. But knowing how Congress operates, is the republic prepared for the incoherence to be expected from that sausage factory, or — in light of the assiduous behind-the-scenes massaging of the process by the IC — an outcome that’s even worse? We know the courts would defer to the executive; codification would let them do it without shame.

  4. jerryy says:

    .
    “No battle plan, survives contact with the enemy.” – Helmuth von Moltke.
    Secrecy is the beginning of tyranny. – Italian proverb
    .
    Presidential blathering is probably more benefit than detraction. When it happens we get another glimpse into how the government is being run for the few and not to help its citizens.
    .
    Consider how tough it has gotten to push a FOIA request through some agencies, even with the courts ordering those agencies to comply.
    .
    Putting yet another secret group in charge of deciding what should and should not be Pravda and things like the Flint water crisis will not happen because no will will ever know about it. Extend the reasoning and really there is no point to having elections, just appointments.
    .
    Trade secrets, etc. are just legal means to give the home team a slight advantage to get products to market – but does nothing to stop the knowledge from getting out there. If you want to copy iPhones, the recent encryption scandal has illustrated that all you have to do is pay someone to carefully take several apart, including slicing off the tops of the integrated circuits and the secrets are yours.
    .
    Agencies can and will resist having their membership lists bandied about in the press, but keeping them secret does not stop other groups from discovering them.

    • jerryy says:

      p.s. An individual’s right to privacy is distinct from a government claim to the same in that individuals do not have the means, acting on their own, to use censorship and various powers in the giuse of privacy to destroy others’ lives.

  5. jo6pac says:

    “You never know when someone is going to leak an officer’s identity just for political gain, after all.”

    Says it all right there;)

  6. Procopius says:

    From my contacts with classified material in the military I believe at least 90% of classified material is over-classified at least two levels, and 80% of it should not be classified at all, merely designated “For Official Use Only,” if even that. An awful lot is derivative classification, classified because it mentions something that is classified without actually talking about it. Like the material about drones on Hillary’s server. The emails were discussing newspaper stories, but because the drone program is classified top secret some dweeb decided that mentioning the newspapers was mentioning the drone program in an official document and so had to also be classified top secret. I don’t worry about even Trump talking about things that really need to be kept secret, but he might apply some sense and decide some material shouldn’t be classified. By the way, I thought the FOIA program was already thoroughly subverted. Since January 2009 it has become much harder to use FOIA to pry information out of most government agencies.

  7. martin says:

    “Not that Donald Trump might get a single intelligence briefing.”

    Hahaha. You’re mean emptywheel.

    Trump was MIA when god held intelligence briefings.

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