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Former CIA Deputy Director Explains Why 2020 'Briefing Book' Was Released Early

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Two former acting CIA directors have created a briefing book filled with unclassified reports on all the major national security issues the U.S. faces, and they gave these briefing books out to every single 2020 presidential candidate who is running now. The briefing book is meant to be similar to the classified oral briefing that's usually given to the presidential nominee of each party after the national conventions. One of the authors of the book is John McLaughlin. Welcome.

JOHN MCLAUGHLIN: Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: So why did you think it was necessary to roll out this briefing book now, way before the nominating conventions, and to all the 2020 candidates?

MCLAUGHLIN: Well, another former acting director and myself - that's Michael Morell - we decided that this was a good time to do it because, at this stage of the campaign, most of these candidates have not really yet begun to formulate foreign policy positions. Most of them are talking, as you know, about domestic issues, such as health care, but sooner or later, they will turn to foreign policy. And our objective here is simply to put out a foundation of facts and analysis as a kind of starting point for them, just the way we would have done if we were still at CIA using classified information.

CHANG: So how many copies of this book are floating around in the universe right now? Because there's so many people running for president already.

MCLAUGHLIN: Well, somehow one of them got away to The Washington Post, which is...

CHANG: Right, there was a leak.

MCLAUGHLIN: ...Which is why we're talking here today.

CHANG: (Laughter) Yes, it is. Thank you, Washington Post.

MCLAUGHLIN: But there are as many out there as there are declared presidential candidates.

CHANG: You mentioned that, you know, one reason you disseminated this to all the candidates is because, at least at this point, a lot of them haven't formulated foreign policy positions yet. But is another justification the fact that there is a lot of talk now about fake news or election interference? Does that make this particular election a compelling one to disseminate a document like this to all the candidates?

MCLAUGHLIN: It was one of our motivations in the sense that Washington right now is so deeply partisan that very few people talk about these foreign policy issues in a kind of neutral way. Everyone has a point of view, everyone seems to be spinning a particular line or agenda. And the people who wrote these are people whose job it was in government to be as objective as a human being can be, acknowledging that that's very hard, but to be objective and factual. And also, I would just say there are no policy recommendations in this document; in other words, we do not push toward a policy on anything. We just simply say, here's the issue; here's the problem that is staring at us.

CHANG: Let's talk about Russia. We know the intelligence community, both current and former, sees Russia as much more of a serious threat than President Trump says he does. Does your briefing book contradict some of the things Trump has said on Russia?

MCLAUGHLIN: He might take it that way. It presents Russia as a formidable problem. It makes the point that Russia has now a global agenda, that it is seeking to assert its influence, and that it is breaking the rules in a way that really challenged the global order as it has been understood by the United States. And, of course, it accepts as a given that they did really interfere in our election. So in all of those respects, it might be at odds with whatever it is that President Trump actually thinks.

CHANG: Does this book take the position that President Trump is simply wrong about Russia?

MCLAUGHLIN: No. No, it does not say that. And I would underline that this book is not an anti-Trump book or a pro-anyone book. It's not anti- or pro-anyone. Maybe it's hard to believe in today's Washington, but we actually have no agenda (laughter).

CHANG: John McLaughlin is a former acting CIA director. Thank you very much for joining us today.

MCLAUGHLIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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