Friday, October 03, 2008

Another Bad Idea

From Bill Gertz of the Washington Times, we learn that President Bush has authorized the intelligence community to brief both presidential campaigns with "classified information on world events."

The policy was revealed last month, during a speech by Thomas C. Fingar, the Deputy Director of National Intelligence for Analysis.

"The president authorized us to reach out to the campaigns to offer substantive briefings at a time and place of their choosing," Mr. Fingar said in a Sept. 4 speech in Florida.

Mr. Fingar, who also heads the National Intelligence Council, which produces intelligence estimates, stated that "our approach in this is complete transparency. If one campaign asks for something or receives something, we notify the other. We don't want to be an issue. We don't want to appear to be or enable anybody to construe us as being partisan in this. We've provided an array of topics that we think sort of collectively in the community are ones that might want to know about early on. But we'll of course receive any request."

Based on limited evidence, the system seems to be working. We can't find any evidence that either campaign has tried to use the information for political advantage. However, we'd feel better if the DNI released an (unclassified) list of topics presented, and who has been present for the briefings, and where the presentations were delivered.

Still, the Bush policy strikes us as a bad idea, for a couple of reasons. First, Senators Obama and McCain already have access to classified information in their capacity as elected officials. Some of their top advisers also have security clearances, and (we assume) receive intelligence updates in their positions outside the campaign. Suffice it to say that both campaigns already have access to intel data, without regular updates from the DNI staff.

Secondly, regardless of who wins the election, there will be plenty of time to get them up to speed before Inauguration Day. In the interim, providing current intelligence data to the campaigns creates an enormous temptation to "spin" a report or assessment, particularly in a close race.

Again, there is no indication of that happening (so far). But lest we forget, the ultimate job of a campaign--and a candidate--is winning the election, no matter what it takes. If that means a timely leak to enhance a candidate's stand (or embarrass an opponent), so be it.

Besides, even if Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain play by the rules this time around, there's no guarantee that future presidential hopefuls will comply. Nowadays, virtually no one gets prosecuted for divulging classified information, and that includes various politicians and advisers with access to intelligence data.

In his effort to be fair, Mr. Bush has only accelerated an ominous trend. In theory, intelligence agencies and their assessments should be above politics and presidential campaigns. Instead, our intelligence community has become increasingly politicized, with elements conducting an open war against the administration and its policies, largely through anonymous leaks. It's easy to see that practice continuing, in the heat of a political campaign.


ADDENDUM: There is a certain irony that the briefing policy was announced by Dr. Fingar, a man who is no stranger to controversy, or the politics of intelligence. As you'll recall, Fingar presided over that controversial National Intelligence Estimate on Iran, the controversial (read: misguided) assessment which declared that Iran had suspended its nuclear weapons program for three years, and was almost a decade away from obtaining the bomb.

While the NIE was subsequently criticized by other intelligence officials, it virtually eliminated any chance of a U.S. strike on Iran during the final year of the Bush Administration.


John said...

The practice of giving the presidential candidates access to the PDB is not new. I don't remember which president started it but you can hear about it August 1, 2008 "Spycast" Podcast.

Spook86 said...

New or not, still a bad idea. As sitting Senators, Obama and McCain have access to classified information; as for the really sensitive stuff, the DNI (and others) can get them spun up after election day.

At one time, the practice may have been acceptable, from a security standpoint. But in today's hyper-partisan, politically-charged environment, it's just a matter of time before sensitive data gets "spun" for electoral advantage.

Pooh Bear said...

Indeed this practice is not new, it's been going on at least since 1976. I just read recently about Carter getting briefings during that campaign. As far as McCain and Obama getting access to classified information, unless they are on the committees that oversee the intelligence community and covert action, they do NOT get full access. Most of the highly sensitive material is reserved for select committees of both houses.

Corky Boyd said...

As others have pointed out, presidential candidates are generally given briefings shortly after their nomination. It is often done so an incumbent doesn't appear to have an inside infromation advantage, though that doesn't apply here.

On the other hand Obama did blabber to the Dem caucus after his return from Israel about information he received from briefings from our diplomatic folks about the imminence of Israeli airstrikes against Iran.

On a slightly different note, what was truly scary was when Rep. Alcee Hastings was in line to become Chair of the House Intelligence Committee. This would have given him access to sources and methods of the blackest of black projects.

Having been impeached by the House for accepting a bribe for a lenient sentence, it was hard to rationalize how he could even get a secret clearance. Perhaps that's the reason Speaker Pelosi backed down on his appointment. Somone in the administration may have told her he wouldn't be cleared.

owr084 said...

What I would like to know is who is the jackass that approved obama's security clearance? Admitted drug use, association with known felons and terrorists, etc. Youkow, all the stuff that would prevent a normal person from receiving a clearance...