National Security

How dangerous is Trump’s rejection of daily intelligence briefings?

Central Intelligence Agency headquarters in Langley, Va.
Central Intelligence Agency headquarters in Langley, Va. AP

President-elect Donald Trump’s weekend statement that he planned not to receive a daily intelligence briefing has exploded into controversy.

Former U.S. intelligence officers, already feeling angst over some of Trump’s remarks disparaging their work, warned that skipping the daily briefing could leave Trump slow to recognize developing crises, though they noted that the daily briefing is not the only channel for intelligence to filter up to key players in the White House.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest defended the daily intelligence briefing as a rare source of accurate, up-to-date information that allows a president to make “good decisions.”

“It certainly is a bad sign that the president-elect is disparaging the intelligence community publicly and that he doesn’t need to have these daily briefs,” said David Priess, a former CIA office and author of “The President’s Book of Secrets: The Untold Story of Intelligence Briefings to America’s Presidents from Kennedy to Obama.”

Trump told Fox News in an interview aired Sunday that “very good people” are giving him periodic briefings but that he has delegated the daily briefing to Vice President-elect Mike Pence because he doesn’t need to hear “the same thing every day, every morning, same words.”

He didn’t dispute that he is receiving the briefings only once a week, intended to prepare him to react to global crises once he lands in the Oval Office on Jan. 20.

“I get it when I need it,” Trump said, adding that at other times, “I’m available on one minute’s notice.”

“You know, I’m like a smart person. I don’t have to be told the same thing and the same words every single day for the next eight years,” Trump said.

The remarks came two days after Trump’s office issued a blistering statement following news reports that the CIA had told legislators that Russian meddling before the Nov. 8 vote had been designed to sway the election in Trump’s favor. His office blamed the CIA for bungling intelligence that led U.S. soldiers into war in Iraq in 2003 to find nonexistent weapons of mass destruction.

Priess said the morning briefs “are not meant to be a tutorial or to make someone smart.” Rather, they prepare the U.S. leader with the background to confront sudden crises.

“As every president learns, every crisis in the world becomes the United States’ crisis,” Priess said.

Trump is not the first incoming U.S. leader in the past half century to back off from daily intelligence briefings. Richard Nixon, long hostile to the CIA, refused intelligence briefings during the transition following his 1968 election. Once in office, Nixon softened. But his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, told briefers to limit the information they offered on far-flung places and focus heavily instead on the Soviet Union and Europe, Priess said.

Usually, incoming presidents and senior briefers need a period of adaptation.

“It’s not only what the president learns from the intelligence briefers but also what the briefers learn about the president’s concerns,” said Paul R. Pillar, who spent 28 years at the CIA. “Questions get asked and the briefer goes back, and people get to work answering those questions.”

“Typically there is a team of very senior officers who are trusted with this role,” he said.

Earnest, the White House spokesman, said Monday that Trump knows the utility of daily briefings because he criticized former President George W. Bush “for not sufficiently protecting the country from 9/11. And even criticized him for not carefully listening to the presidential daily briefing that was later declassified that warned of 9/11.”

That briefing occurred Aug. 6, 2001, a month before the Sept. 11 attacks, and warned that al-Qaida wanted to attack on U.S. territory. Controversy has raged since its release in 2004 about whether Bush responded properly to the report or whether it was too vague to be considered a warning.

Obama has “benefited enormously” from receiving accurate, up-to-date information through “the tireless efforts of the experts and patriots at the – in the intelligence community,” Earnest said.

The daily briefing is also a venue for senior intelligence officers to present “bad news” to a president without fear of retaliation, pointing out negative fallout from global events.

“That’s often part and parcel of the presidential daily briefing,” Earnest said.

Pillar, who now is a senior fellow at the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University, said the daily brief is not the only way intelligence filters up to the White House.

“That’s just one product. You have a whole range of short-term and long-term estimates,” he said, adding that CIA and other intelligence agencies are often in contact with counterparts at the Pentagon, the National Security Council and other parts of the executive branch.

Trump’s occasional rebukes and disdainful remarks have been painful to the CIA, Pillar said, but the agency is accustomed to coming under fire.

“However much they may be wincing inside, they are professionals who know that criticism comes with the territory,” he said. Even so, “there’s going to be a lot of discomfort.”

Pillar said that any president who limits contact with the intelligence community may be harming himself.

“It particularly bothers me when I hear Mr. Trump say, ‘I’ll get information when I need it,’ ” Pillar said. “The problem with Mr. Trump is not only what he doesn’t know. The problem is what he doesn’t know he doesn’t know.”

Vera Bergengruen contributed to this report.

Tim Johnson: 202-383-6028, @timjohnson4