As President Donald Trump continues challenging the election results and delaying President-elect Joe Biden’s transition planning, a key part of US intelligence is being kept from the incoming president.
The Presidential Daily Brief (PDB), the ultra-secret daily briefing of the nation’s most sensitive intelligence, is a key part of keeping the president fully informed and, in recent years, the president-elect fully prepared.
In 2000, when the presidential election was still in legal limbo due to a recount in Florida, outgoing President Bill Clinton decided to let then-Governor George W Bush read the daily brief of the nation’s most sensitive intelligence.
Clinton was a Democrat and his vice president, Al Gore, was running against Republican Bush. Gore had been reading the so-called PDB for eight years; Clinton decided to bring Bush into the fold in case he won — and he did.
President Donald Trump has not followed Clinton’s lead.
Oklahoma Republican Senator James Lankford said on Wednesday he will intervene if Trump does not loop Biden in soon.
“I’ve already started engaging in this area … And if that’s not occurring by Friday, I will step in and push and say this needs to occur so that regardless of the outcome of the election, whichever way that it goes, people can be ready for that actual task,” Lankford told Tulsa, Oklahoma radio station KRMG.
He said Vice President-elect Kamala Harris also should be getting the briefings, which should not be a problem because she already has security clearances as a member of the Senate intelligence committee.
Lankford on Thursday reiterated his view Biden should be getting intelligence briefings as a growing number of other top Republicans including Senators Chuck Grassley, Lindsey Graham, John Thune and others joined in calling for the Trump administration to reverse its posture.
“I would think – especially on classified briefings – the answer is yes,” Grassley told reporters at the US Capitol when asked if he thought Biden should now begin receiving presidential daily intelligence briefings.
“Yes, I think so,” Graham told reporters when asked about Biden receiving presidential briefings.
National security and intelligence experts hope Trump changes his mind, citing the need for an incoming president to be fully prepared to confront any national security issues on day one.
“Our adversaries aren’t waiting for the transition to take place,” says former Michigan Republican Representative Mike Rogers, who was chairman of the House intelligence committee. “Joe Biden should receive the President’s Daily Brief starting today. He needs to know what the latest threats are and begin to plan accordingly. This isn’t about politics; this is about national security.”
US adversaries can take advantage of the country during an American presidential transition and key foreign issues will be bearing down on Biden the moment he steps into the Oval Office.
Among them: Unless Trump extends or negotiates a new nuclear arms accord with Russia before Inauguration Day, Biden will have only 16 days to act before the expiration of the last remaining treaty reining in the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals. Perhaps US spies have picked up tidbits about the Russians’ red lines in the negotiations, or about weapons it really wants to keep out of the treaty.
That is the type of information that might be in the PDB, a daily summary of high-level, classified information and analysis on national security issues that has been offered to presidents since 1946. It is coordinated and delivered by the Office of the National Intelligence Director with input from the CIA and other agencies. It is tailored for each president, depending on whether they prefer oral or written briefs or both, short summaries or long reports on paper or electronically.
Having access to the PDB could also help Biden craft a possible response to North Korea, which has a history of firing off missiles or conducting nuclear tests shortly before or after new presidents take office.
Biden has decades of experience in foreign affairs and national security, but he likely has not been privy to the latest details about how Iran is back to enriching uranium, or the active cyberattack operations of Russia, China and Iran. China’s crackdown on Hong Kong is heating up. And the threat from armed groups, although curbed, still remains.
Biden is trying to play down the significance of the delay in getting access to the PDB.
“Obviously the PDB would be useful but it’s not necessary. I’m not the sitting president now,” Biden said on Tuesday.
He was also asked about needing access to classified information as soon as possible if Trump does not concede the race.
“Look, access to classified information is useful. But I’m not in a position to make any decisions on those issues anyway,” Biden said. “As I said, one president at a time. He will be president until January 20. It would be nice to have it, but it’s not critical.”
While the Bush team had access to the intelligence brief in 2000, the election recount delayed the Bush team’s access to government agencies and resources for more than five weeks. Biden is missing out on all counts: More than a week into his transition, Biden does not have access to the PDB, the agencies or government resources to help him get ready to take charge.
“President-elect Joe Biden and his transition team should not suffer a similar delay,” John Podesta, who served as the White House chief of staff under Clinton, and Bush’s chief of staff Andrew Card wrote in a joint op-ed published this week in The Washington Post.
“We have since learned the serious costs of a delayed transition,” they wrote. “Less than eight months after Bush’s inauguration, two planes flew into the World Trade Center, killing nearly 3,000 Americans.”
The 9/11 Commission Report on September 11, 2001 attacks warns of the danger in slow-walking presidential transition work in general, not just the intelligence piece. The Bush administration did not have its deputy cabinet officers in place until early 2001 and critical subcabinet positions were not confirmed until about that midyear — if then, the report said.
For now, the office of National Intelligence Director John Ratcliffe says it cannot begin talking with the Biden transition team until a federal agency starts the process of transition, which the Trump administration is delaying.
The office, which oversees more than a dozen US intelligence agencies, said it must follow the Presidential Transition Act, which requires the General Services Administration to first ascertain the winner of the election, which Trump is contesting. GSA administrator Emily Murphy, who was appointed by Trump, has not yet officially designated Biden as the president-elect.