Politics: the Briefings of United States Presidential Candidates

Politics: the Briefings of United States Presidential Candidates


In accordance with a practice established by President Harry S. Truman, presidential nominees of both major political parties receive intelligence briefings at some point between the summer political conventions and the presidential elections every four years. Assuming a candidate is an incumbent president or vice president, he is already accustomed to receiving such briefings, but for a contender who has not served in the inner circles of a previous administration, the briefing is an entirely new experience. The pace of briefings intensifies once a candidate is chosen in the November elections, and continues in the period leading up to inauguration day. Thereafter, the new chief executive will receive intelligence briefings on a regular basis in the form of the presidential daily briefing (PDB).

Who Receives Briefings

Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard M. Nixon, Gerald R. Ford, and George H. W. Bush had all served as vice presidents, and therefore had received intelligence briefings while holding the nation's second-highest office. The same was true of several ultimately unsuccessful candidates for the presidency, including Nixon in 1960, Hubert Humphrey in 1968, Walter Mondale in 1984, and Albert Gore in 2000. Additionally, there had been several instances in which an incumbent ran for reelection and was defeated, meaning that in the period between November of election year and January of the following year, the successful challenger received intelligence briefings even as the sitting president received PDBs. Such was the case with Ford in 1976, James E. Carter in 1980, and Bush in 1992.

The system of intelligence briefings extends only to candidates of major parties. Although H. Ross Perot garnered more than 20 million votes in 1992, no serious consideration was given toward the idea of providing him with highly sensitive materials on national security and intelligence.

Anatomy of the briefing system. The career of George H. W. Bush, which included service as director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), which administers the briefings, and later as vice-president and president, placed him in several interesting circumstances with regard to briefings. In 1976, he personally provided briefings to Carter, and in 1980 helped arrange briefings for Ronald Reagan, who had defeated him in the Republican primaries, and on whose ticket he was now running as vice-president.

In 1992, Bush was running for reelection as president against then-Arkansas governor William J. Clinton. After the latter received the nomination at the Democratic Convention, National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft contacted Washington attorney Samuel Berger (who would hold Scowcroft's position in the second Clinton administration) to arrange briefings. CIA director Robert Gates traveled to Little Rock to personally brief Clinton and vice-presidential candidate Gore.

Clinton's briefings in 1992. The first briefings, on September 4, 1992, concerned the major national security issues of the moment, including turmoil in the soon-to-be-defunct Soviet Union and escalating conflict in Yugoslavia. Clinton received no further briefings until after the election, at which point a CIA team established a presence in Little Rock. Leading the briefings from that point onward was John L. Helgerson, who latter wrote Getting to Know the President: CIA Briefings of Presidential Candidates, 1952–1992, published by CIA's Center for the Study of Intelligence in 1996.

On November 11, Helgerson met with Clinton, Berger, and Nancy Soderberg of the governor's staff. Two days later, he began his briefings with Clinton. As Helgerson explained to the candidate, the PDB goes to the vice-president, national security advisor, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, White House chief of staff, and secretaries of State and Defense. In view of the growing importance of economic issues, Helgerson suggested that the Secretary of the Treasury also be included. Clinton agreed.

Other than this one suggestion, Helgerson indicated, he was hesitant to guide the president-elect in any way. Helgerson recalled that, in view of what he described as CIA "policy buzz saws" of the 1980s (most notably, the Iran-Contra scandal), he took great pains not to try to influence Clinton's thinking on any issues. Over the period from November 13 to January 16, 1993, Helgerson and others provided the president elect with daily briefings while Bush, now a "lame duck" president, received exactly the same material in his PDB. Beginning January 17, the briefing team moved from Little Rock to Washington, preparing to make the transition to providing Clinton with daily briefings as president.



Helgerson, John L. Getting to Know the President: CIA Briefings of Presidential Candidates, 1952–1992. Washington, D.C.: Central Intelligence Agency, 1996.


Auerbach, Stuart. "Party Nominees to Get Trade Briefing." Washington Post. (June 25, 1988): D12.


CIA (United States Central Intelligence Agency)
CIA, Legal Restriction
Iran-Contra Affair
PFIAB (President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board)
President of the United States (Executive Command and Control of Intelligence Agencies)

User Contributions:

Comment about this article, ask questions, or add new information about this topic:

Politics: the Briefings of United States Presidential Candidates forum