After FBI Director James Comey made his ill-fated recommendation Tuesday that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton not face indictment for her security breaches, several dominoes fell. Right now, as I set pen to paper, Director Comey is testifying before Congress to explain how he went from presenting a laundry list of damning infractions to the conclusion that former-Secretary Clinton should not face charges.
Another domino that fell was House Speaker Paul Ryan ’s call Wednesday for the administration to deny Clinton access to classified information after her formal nomination at the Democratic National Convention. (Yet a third, and lesser, domino was the issue raised by House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz of whether Clinton lied under oath.)
But let’s take a step back to the letter that Ryan drafted on Wednesday urging Director of National Intelligence James Clapper to withhold from Clinton access to classified briefings. A question that arises for me (and I believe should arise for everyone) is why any major party presidential nominee should be privy to the nation’s top secrets prior to be elected.
According to the book “CIA Briefings of Presidential Candidates” by John Helgerson, a political scientist and former member of the federal intelligence community, the tradition dates to 1952. The book’s foreword notes:
Harry Truman entered the Oval Office in April 1945 almost wholly ignorant of intelligence matters. His determination that no future president should take office as uninformed as he had been is partly responsible for the intelligence briefing offered to all presidential candidates since 1952.
I can appreciate the desire of the federal government and its intelligence apparatus to ensure that each new commander-in-chief hits the ground running. Nevertheless, the investigation surrounding Clinton gets one wondering how wise this custom is. I can certainly appreciate the importance of getting a potential president-to-be up to speed on protocol so that he (or she) is ready on Day One. I can also appreciate that intelligence gathering has become an increasingly vital part of maintaining the nation’s security, as Helgerson points out.
But it’s precisely for those reasons that I wonder how smart it is to share highly sensitive data with the “also-ran” in a presidential election. Once the election is over and the loser returns to being a private member of society, he does so armed with some of the nation’s dearest secrets.
This has not been a problem so far — at least not as far as any of us knows — but it’s not hard to imagine it becoming one. And, no, I’m not expecting that Clinton or Donald Trump will go blabbing state secrets to some enemy. But as the old adage reminds us, “Loose lips sink ships.” Or as another adage goes, “Sh*t happens.”
Currently, the president-elect enjoys a five-week transition period to master the ins and outs of being president. If this is insufficient time to guarantee the new commander is ready to lead on matters of national security, maybe the transition period should be lengthened.
I don’t know about you, but I would sleep much better knowing that America’s darkest secrets are shared with as few people as possible.