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Politics & Government

Trump To Receive Same Top-Secret Briefings As President Obama

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

President-elect Donald Trump will be getting the same top-secret briefings as President Obama from now on going forward. That is according to four former CIA heads who spoke to NPR's Mary Louise Kelly about their thinking at this moment of transition.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: Intelligence officers did brief Trump during the campaign, but those were broad overviews. Details about covert operations, electronic surveillance and other highly classified subjects were left out.

Starting now, Trump gets the full dose - the nation's most prized secrets on everything from nuclear sites to terrorism to Russia. Former CIA director and defense secretary Leon Panetta allows that intelligence officers have not always been enthusiastic about sharing these secrets with Trump. There were fears he might reveal them.

LEON PANETTA: You know, (laughter) there were a lot of concerns about how he handled the intelligence briefings during the campaign. But he's now president-elect of the United States of America, and he has to be told what the situation is in terms of the intelligence that we have and the threats that are out there.

KELLY: The threats that are out there include turmoil across the Middle East, a rising China, a nuclear armed North Korea and - yes - a resurgent Russia.

Mike Morell who, like Panetta, advised the Clinton campaign on national security has called Trump unqualified to be president. But Morrell believes U.S. spy agencies have a responsibility to do everything in their power to prepare him to serve. Morell was acting director of the CIA twice. He briefed both George W. Bush and Barack Obama as they prepared to assume the presidency.

MICHAEL MORELL: Here's what I saw with both - even when you're president-elect, you are not responsible for the security and safety of a country. As soon as you raise your right hand and take that oath of office, you are - changes dramatically. It's really sobering to watch.

KELLY: Tensions between Trump and the nation's spy chiefs came into focus last month, October 19, the final presidential debate. Trump, asked about Russia's attempts to interfere with the election, questioned the consensus of U.S. intelligence agencies. A third former CIA director, General Mike Hayden says that moment rankles.

MICHAEL HAYDEN: Here's a man who wants to be president rejecting a high-confidence judgment of the intelligence community, not because he has contrarian evidence but because that conclusion conflicts with his preferred worldview. That's really scary.

KELLY: Trump has also set off alarm bells at the CIA by suggesting he might bring back waterboarding. Here he is at a campaign event this spring.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: Torture works. OK, folks? Believe me, it works. OK? And waterboarding is your minor form, but we should go much stronger than waterboarding.

KELLY: To which General Hayden responded, quote, "if you want somebody waterboarded, bring your own damn bucket."

In an interview, Leon Panetta agreed in somewhat more diplomatic terms.

PANETTA: Problem is, you know, he can say whatever he wants. But what he says has to be backed up by strong legal opinions issued by the Justice Department. You can't just order things that are flagrant in terms of our Constitution. They have to be constitutional, and they have to abide by the law.

KELLY: Former CIA acting director John McLaughlin says, in the end, the way Trump's relationship with his spy chiefs unfolds will be pretty simple. Intelligence officers will brief him with the same respect they have every president-elect. They expect him to respond in kind.

Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF HIDDEN ORCHESTRA'S "SEVEN HUNTERS (DAM MANTLE REMIX)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.