John McLaughlin, former acting director of the CIA and a distinguished practitioner in residence at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, spoke with Elise Hu at NPR recently about the practice of briefing presidential candidates on national intelligence matters.
Briefings are scheduled to begin soon, but critics of both candidates are uneasy about the idea—some worry Donald Trump is too close to Russian President Vladimir Putin, for example. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid went so far as to suggest last week that Trump couldn't be trusted and should receive "fake" briefings.
Others are alarmed by Hillary Clinton's carelessness with a private email server, which included some messages that contained classified information.
But McLaughlin says that the tradition—which dates to President Harry Truman's administration in the early 1950s—is no cause for alarm.
"[T]he theory is that one of these two people will become president of the United States," McLaughlin said. "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. ... [T]he intelligence ethic here is you stay out of politics."
In fact, McLaughlin notes, it might be more dangerous to forgo the briefings and thus have a president-elect who is inadequately prepared.
"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," he said. "... By the time [a decision] 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."Read more from NPR