“So that they would campaign with greater insight and also know key national security players once elected.”
— Harry S. Truman, 1952
“It’s not like you have a ton of time to sit there and get briefed every day.”
— Lanhee Chen
Adviser to Mitt Romney
It’s that time in a presidential campaign season again where we hear that the major party candidates are getting briefings from national security agencies. We don’t always hear details about those briefings — who is giving them or how often they are occurring — but we hear that they are happening. So much so, in fact, that we may be led to believe that there is some federal law that governs them.
Not all candidates get these briefings and they don’t get them right away. The briefings are given to the candidates of the two major parties and they begin when those candidates are formally nominated at their party conventions. Neither John Anderson in 1980 nor Ross Perot in 1992 and 1996 received any national intelligence briefings of any kind. Even those rules aren’t set in stone. Jimmy Carter asked for briefings to begin prior to formally accepting the Democratic nomination in 1976 and President Gerald Ford obliged. Walter Mondale declined the briefings in 1984.
There is no law or formal requirement for the briefings to occur. They arose out of the unique and incredible experience of Harry S. Truman. Truman had not been vice president during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first three terms in office. At the Democratic National Convention in 1944, Truman surpassed sitting Vice President Henry A. Wallace in votes to join the ticket with FDR. (Roosevelt named Wallace commerce secretary shortly after.) Roosevelt and Truman were sworn in on Jan. 20, 1945, as the world began to hope that World War II was winding down.
Roosevelt and his inner circle shared some details with Truman, but the secret results of the Manhattan Project were not among them. When FDR died 82 days into his fourth term, Truman found that he had gone, in less than three months, from having no information about the war effort, to suddenly discovering that the United States had in its possession the most powerful weapon ever devised.
Truman now had to wrap his head around the question of whether to use that weapon on Japan, knowing what the civilian casualties would be. Following the war, and as his second term drew to a close in 1952, he became convinced that no president should come into office unaware of current security issues as he had done. He therefore ordered the CIA to provide briefings to Dwight Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson.
The process has continued over the past 64 years, but the briefings occur at the discretion of the sitting president. No president has bucked that trend but the commander in chief gets to make choices about what information will be provided to the candidates.
The sitting president gets a PDB — a Presidential Daily Brief — on intelligence information. Those close to the process report that the information provided to candidates is nothing like what’s included in the PDB. The candidate briefings occur only one to three times, they contain only selected information, and they occur in an SCIF — a “sensitive, compartmented information facility.”
Lanhee Chen, chief policy adviser to Mitt Romney in 2012, sat in on the briefings Romney received, and recently told reporters that the meetings began with a memorandum of understanding being signed, dictating their number and location, and that the briefings were remarkably cordial despite the fact that Romney was challenging the sitting administration that year.
Once the election is over and the new president is selected, the president-elect will begin receiving more frequent and more detailed briefings. Thus, these briefings are a political courtesy extended to aid in the smooth transition of government, but not a feature of American federal law.
David Hejmanowski is judge of the Probate/Juvenile Division of the Delaware County Common Pleas Court.