WASHINGTON – When David Priess was a CIA officer, he traveled to Houston, he recalls, to brief former President George HW Bush on classified developments in the Middle East.
It was a long tradition of consulting with former presidents and gaining access to some of the nation’s secrets.
Priess and other former intelligence officials said Joe Biden would be wise not to let Donald Trump continue this tradition.
They say the soon-to-be President Trump is already a threat because of the secrets he currently holds, and they think it would be foolish to entrust him with more sensitive information. As Trump’s real estate empire is under financial pressure and his brand is suffering, they are worried that he will see American secrets as a profit center.
“He couldn’t have imagined this with other presidents, but he could have simply imagined it,” said Jack Goldsmith, who served as a senior official in the Justice Department of the George W. Bush administration.
“As president, he showed that he doesn’t take secrecy terribly seriously,” Goldsmith said in an interview. “He has a known tendency to respect the rules of national security. And he has a known tendency to like to sell things that are valuable to him.”
Goldsmith and other experts noted that Trump had historically recklessly disclosed classified information. In 2017, he told the Russian Secretary of State and Ambassador he received extremely sensitive information from the U.S. ally about the threat of terrorism. Last year, experts said a secret satellite photo of an Iranian nuclear facility was tweeted.
The president may also be vulnerable to foreign influences. His tax records show, according to a New York Times report, that Trump is facing financial challenges as he personally guaranteed more than $ 400 million in corporate debt at a time when the epidemic put pressure on the hotel industry, in which Trump is a major player.
– Is that a risk? said Priess of Presidents and Intelligence, who wrote the “Book of President’s Secrets.” “If someone applied for a security check, it’s damn true, it would be a risk.”
The White House did not respond to comments. The Biden transition did not want to comment.
According to Trump, his finances are in order and they make up a small percentage of his debt assets. In general, however, large debts to foreign banks – Trump’s largest creditor is Deutsche Bank, a German institution affiliated with Russia – would exclude a person from top-secret licensing.
However, presidents are not examined and polygraphed for security clearances like all other government officials. Through their election, they take control of the nation’s secret intelligence, and the law allows them to make anything public to anyone at any time.
Former presidents are also not subject to security investigations. As a courtesy, they provide access to secrets, with the permission of the current president.
Former presidents are usually informed before traveling overseas, or on an issue that the current president wants to consult with them, Priess and other experts say.
When President Bill Clinton sent former President Jimmy Carter to spread, for example, a tense opposition in Haiti, Carter probably received qualified briefings on the situation before his trip.
When George HW Bush visited his son in the White House, he sat down in the President’s Daily Briefing, the highly secret collection of secrets presented to the residents of the Oval Office each morning, says Priess, who asked both men. to your book.
It is unclear whether former President Barack Obama received intelligence briefings after leaving office, but President Trump said in March that he had not consulted his predecessors about the coronavirus or anything else.
Former presidents have long since made office by making money writing books and giving speeches, but no former president has ever had an international business concentration like Trump. Trump has business interests or connections in China, Russia, and other adversary countries in the United States that crave even the small parts of what he knows about the U.S. state security.
Nevertheless, Trump may not be familiar with the many highly classified details, experts say he was famous for only intermittently watching during his intelligence briefings and refusing to read the written material. Moreover, intelligence officers generally do not share specifics about resources and methods with any president unless he or she requests it.
So Trump probably doesn’t know the names of the CIA spies in Russia, experts say. But he presumably knows a little about, for example, the capabilities of American observation drones, or how skillfully the National Security Agency has been able to eavesdrop on communications from various foreign governments.
Like Trump, his experience of sharing secrets has not been unprecedented in American presidential history.
In an interview with journalist Bob Woodward for a book published in the fall, Trump boasted of a secret nuclear weapons system that neither Russia nor China knew about.
According to the Washington Post, Woodward’s sources “later confirmed that the U.S. military had a secret new weapons system, but no details were provided, and people were surprised that Trump had made it public.”
When Trump briefed the public about the commando raid that killed ISIS chief Abu Bakr al Baghdad, NBC News reported secret and sensitive details.
In 2017, Trump gave two U.S. nuclear submarines near North Korea to the President of the Philippines.
That same year, a member of the Mar-a-Lago Golf Club photographed a briefing that Trump and the Japanese Prime Minister received in a public area about North Korea and posted on Facebook.
In 2018, the New York Times reported that Trump generally used insecure cell phones to call friends, and that Chinese and other spies were listening, gaining valuable insights.
Doug Wise, a former CIA officer and Trump critic, argued in an article on the Just Security website this week that Trump had long been a threat to national security and that granting access to secrets after leaving the White House would increase that threat.
Trump’s large debts, he wrote, pose “obvious and alarming intelligence risks” to the United States.
Russian President Vladimir Putin would have a great incentive to pay Trump to act on behalf of Russia, Wise wrote.
“Assuming President Joe Biden follows customs, Trump will continue to have access to sensitive information that the Russians would consider valuable,” he wrote. “As horrible as it may seem, can a former president with financial leverage be pressured or blackmailed into providing Moscow with sensitive information in exchange for financial easing and future Russian business considerations?”
It wasn’t impossible to imagine Trump paying millions from Arab states or other foreign governments in the Arabian Gulf, said Goldsmith, a Harvard professor, “during which he begins to bloom and disclose a lot of secrets. It wouldn’t be an express quid pro quo, but people they would pay for access and the time spent with it, knowing it would not be discreet. “
Former CIA director John Brennan, a frequent critic of Trump, who was denied access to his own classified file by the president, said the Biden administration should carefully consider the issue of Trump’s access to future secrets.
“It would be advisable for the new administration to conduct an immediate review to determine whether Donald Trump should continue to have access to classified information, given his past actions and his deep concern about possible future actions,” he said.
Then it can never become an issue, said Marc Cymeropoulos, a former CIA officer who has pointed out that Trump has long “despised” US intelligence agencies.
“Honestly, I’d be surprised if you even wanted these prospectuses,” Polymeropoulos said.