Two former top CIA officials have compiled an unclassified report on the major national security challenges facing the United States, which they are distributing to every candidate running for president.
The report, which former acting CIA directors Michael Morell and John McLaughlin call a “briefing book,” is modeled on the classified oral briefing that the intelligence community provides to the nominees of each major political party running for president, usually after the nominating conventions.
The former officials said they’re distributing their briefing now, more than a year before nominees are selected, in response to “the recent rise and abundance of fake news and foreign election interference,” according to a copy reviewed by The Washington Post.
The 37-page document, which has not been previously reported, was sent this month to nearly every announced candidate and will soon be sent to President Trump, the former officials said.
Intelligence agencies have usually viewed their discussions with nominees as a chance to prepare a potential president for the kinds of issues that he or she will have to grapple with, and to give them a sense of the kind of capabilities and expertise that the U.S. government can bring to bear.
But this unclassified document has the feel of an urgent primer, a way to quickly get the candidates up to speed on issues any president will face and to dispel myths and misperceptions.
“We are incredibly divided as a nation . . . and there are debates about what the facts and the truth are on key issues,” Morell said. “When it comes to national security, that’s a dangerous thing.”
Morell and McLaughlin, who have participated in the classified presentations to nominees in the past, enlisted former intelligence officials to write short articles highlighting the key issues in their areas of expertise. The briefing book covers 10 topics, including cybersecurity, China’s expanding power, U.S.-Russia relations, North Korea’s nuclear weapons ambitions and tensions with Iran. Morell, who now hosts a podcast called “Intelligence Matters,” where many of these topics are explored, said the group may update the report with new articles, including the national security implications of climate change.
“The only aim in this is to provide a foundation of fact and analysis for debate and discussion,” McLaughlin said. “No one has to agree with everything. These are contentious issues. But these are the views of people who have worked on these issues for a long time.”
Morell and McLaughlin said that none of the reports contain classified information, and they submitted the entire briefing book to intelligence agencies for review before distributing it. The agencies raised no objections, and the authors worked without pay, McLaughlin and Morell said.
The report is meant to inform candidates as they begin debates and discuss national security issues, McLaughlin and Morell said. But so far, candidates who have received the material are reluctant to talk about it. Most campaigns have not articulated a foreign policy position yet, so the briefing is reaching them at a time when they are probably just beginning to think about the issues in play.
“It’s very helpful information,” said Patricia Ewing, communications director for Democratic candidate Marianne Williamson. “What’s terrific about the briefing is that all the candidates are getting it and will be on the same page.”
As benign as the document is — its findings won’t strike foreign policy experts as particularly revelatory, though they are detailed — it is inevitably provocative in one respect: It describes the world in ways sometimes at odds with the current president’s views.
Take Russia, for instance. Peter Clement, a former career analyst and manager who spent more than 35 years at the CIA, describes the country as a significant global rival, a threat to U.S. and European alliances and concludes that “prospects for improved relations are not good.”
Trump, on the other hand, has said that his personal relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin can resolve tensions. And he has said that he takes Putin at his word when he claims that the country did not interfere in the 2016 election, an act that the briefing book, along with the consensus view of the U.S. intelligence community, takes as a given and central fact that must inform the United States’ approach to Russia.
The briefing book does not take a position on any policy, and in that sense isn’t a rebuke to the Trump administration. And it hews closely to the main views of most intelligence agencies, particularly the CIA.
On hot-button issues, the report also contains some warning. Norm Roule, the former national intelligence manager for Iran, writes that “Iran has threatened to withdraw” from an agreement struck during the Obama administration that froze its nuclear weapons development program in exchange for sanctions relief. Trump pulled the United States out of the agreement, but Iran has said it will remain in compliance, and U.S. officials have publicly testified that, at least for now, the country has stuck to its commitments and isn’t developing nuclear weapons.
“Tehran will remain in the nuclear deal as long as it perceives that the economic and diplomatic advantages outweigh the risks that would come with withdrawal,” Roule writes. “Should Iran believe that these advantages are insufficient, it is likely to ramp up its rhetoric over withdrawal from the deal and then undertake symbolic nuclear expansion to encourage concessions from Europe.”
The candidates will have to confront such foreign policy issues on the campaign trail. McLaughlin and Morell said they hope their briefing will help to shape the candidates’ views, but they are not advocating for any position or campaign.
“The intelligence community that I spent 33 years in and know today is the least political part of our government,” Morell said. “The people who work there are apolitical. They care deeply about the issues they’re working on. And they do not allow their policy views or their political views to influence what they’re writing.”