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 US 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,» said Morell. «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, US-Russia relations, North Korea’s nuclear weapons ambitions and tensions with Iran.
Morell, who now hosts a podcast called «Intelligence Matters,» in which 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 none of the reports contain classified information, and they submitted the entire briefing book to intelligence agencies for a 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 haven’t 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.
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 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 US and European alliances, and concludes that «prospects for improved relations are not good.»
Trump, on the other hand, has said his personal relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin can resolve tensions. And he has said 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’s approach to Russia.
The briefing book does not take a position on any policy; in that sense, it isn’t a rebuke of the Trump administration. And it hues closely to the main views of most intelligence agencies, particularly the CIA.
On hot-button issues, the report also contains some warning. Norm Roule, formerly the CIA’s top Iran analyst, 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.