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DNI's James Clapper addresses pre-election uncertainty: "It will be okay"

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper looks on as President Barack Obama delivers remarks after a national security team meeting at the National Counterterrorism Center in McLean, Virginia, December 17, 2015.

JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

At a speech in Washington, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper acknowledged the heightened sense of uncertainty and vulnerability, as the country girds itself for the transition from President Obama to his successor.

“I’m here with a message: it will be okay,” Clapper told the audience at the Intelligence and National Security Summit on Wednesday.said in hopes of quelling some anxiety.

He described this year’s election as “sportier than we’re used to,” but also said that the 24-hour news cycle and social media were “catastrophyizing” the campaign. But he doesn’t see the 2016 campaign as logistically any different than in past elections. 

“That’s why we’re already briefing the candidates to reduce uncertainty for our next president, whoever it is,” he reassured the crowd. “So that he or she will step in the Oval Office with as good of an understanding of our complex and uncertain world as we can help provide.”

So far, Republican nominee Donald Trump has received two national security briefings in the FBI’s field office in New York. For the first, he brought along New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, a former Defense Intelligence Agency director. His Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, however, received her first briefing in late August. She attended alone.

In his remarks, Clapper gave some insight into the private meetings. Intelligence officers, not political appointees, give the briefings, and they are not coordinated with the White House. Candidates are given the same list of briefing topics to chose from, and any reaction or question asked is confined to that room, Clapper said.

Though Clapper reminded the audience that the United States has a historic tradition of ensuring “orderly transition” through intelligence briefings, that hasn’t stopped high-ranking government leaders from questioning their existence. House Speak Paul Ryan requested that Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton be prohibited from receiving the national security briefings for “for the duration of her candidacy for president” due to her controversial handling of a private email server during her tenure as secretary of state. 

“Nominees for president and vice president receive these classified briefings by virtue of their status as candidates, and do not require separate security clearances before the briefings,” Clapper replied to Ryan’s request at the time.

The procedure concerning the top-secret meetings may remain the same from one election to another, but Clapper did note that there is something unique about this year’s intelligence briefings. It’s the only the third time since 1952-- when intelligence briefings became a routine part of preparing the future president of the United States--that both candidates from two major political parties received the classified information. Besides the elections in 1952, 2008, and now, 2016, one of the candidates didn’t receive the briefings because he was either the incumbent president or vice president.

Director Clapper, who has more than 50 years of public service experience, frequently poked fun at his age -- 75--in what seemed to be an effort to lighten the mood while changing the conversation from intelligence briefings to the serious threats that will play a significant role in the next presidential administration: climate change and cybersecurity--the latter of which inadvertently resulted in a recent shift in top Democratic party leadership.

Clapper noted that Russian hackers are trying to breach U.S. governmental and private networks “all the time.” “Cyber will continue to be a huge problem,” he said, because “people all around the world -- not just opposing parties--want to know what the candidates are thinking.”  

  • Julia Boccagno

    Julia Boccagno is a news associate for CBS News.