Interview With David Priess, Author of “The President’s Book Of Secrets”

on February 24 | in CIA, Intelligence Analysis

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The most secret book in the world has been generating a lot of press lately. Just last year, and to great public fanfare, CIA mostly declassified hundreds of President Daily Briefs (PDBs) served to President Johnson, capsule as well as the President’s Intelligence Checklist that President Kennedy read on a daily basis.

Now, for those intelligence junkies out there, we have perhaps the definitive unclassified history of this secretive daily publication in “The President’s Book of Secrets: The Untold Story of Intelligence Briefings to America’s Presidents from Kennedy to Obama,” by former CIA analyst and briefer, David Priess. 

Why did you decide to write this book?

A few years ago, after a burst of reading on intelligence history, it struck me: no one had yet produced a comprehensive study of the President’s Daily Brief. Here’s this daily product that has informed presidents and their closest advisers for 50 years—how has it remained virtually ignored in books on national security decision-making, and even within intelligence studies?

I quickly discovered that former PDB recipients from the 1960s forward were willing to share their stories involving daily intelligence. Also, digging deep into various archives revealed great context for the PDB’s production and delivery.

A book began to take shape in my mind. My own experience briefing the PDB during the George W. Bush administration showed me how much analytic value the daily product conveys to senior officials, whose schedules allow little time for extraneous information and assessment. That’s a tale worth telling. I hope that The President’s Book of Secrets both offers the public a window into the little-understood world of daily intelligence for the president AND helps intelligence professionals by informing them of their own history.

Why has the PDB become the cornerstone for the US intelligence community? Do other nations have a similar publication, or is it a uniquely American document? 

It’s all in the name. First, The PDB is written for the President, tailored to his individual needs and preferences—a channel that naturally becomes a center of gravity for the community. Second, the PDB has gone to press almost daily since 1964, demanding a ritual of production and delivery that’s hard to pull resources away from. Third, it’s brief—rarely more than 20 pages, often much shorter—allowing the president to digest its content more easily than typical government reports running from dozens to hundreds of pages.

My research focused on US presidents and their daily intelligence; I’ll leave it to others to take the next step and tackle a comparative study. One vignette in my book offers a starting point: as one meeting with President George W. Bush ended, Vladimir Putin taunted CIA director George Tenet by claiming that he, too, had a book like the PDB!

Richard Nixon famously disliked the CIA, and your book strongly suggests he hardly ever read it

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. Was DI analysis generally unhelpful during those years since it didn’t serve the customer–or the customer simply wasn’t interested in what CIA was selling?

A bit of both. President Richard Nixon and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger came into office highly skeptical about the analysis coming out of the CIA, seeing it as liberally biased. Plus, they tended to see intelligence assessments as offering unnecessary education. As Kissinger told me, “Nixon and I both really knew a lot about foreign policy—we were not novices. So we didn’t need a daily newspaper.” The book of secrets was thus destined to remain, at best, one of many inputs.

Some folks at the time understood the probable consequences. One consultant to the NSC warned Kissinger that CIA analysts who discovered the lack of White House interest in the President’s Daily Brief might stop putting effort into Nixon’s PDB to save up their energy for the next administration, which they probably hoped would be more receptive.

Of course, CIA analysts didn’t do themselves any favors with blown calls like the completely, disastrously, and embarrassingly incorrect assessment in October 1973 that Egypt would not attack Israel.

Your book indicates President Bill Clinton was a voracious consumer of intelligence and read the PDB daily, which is at odds with the image of him as being disconnected from intelligence and the CIA. Can you explain why that’s the case? 

Bill Clinton, and all of the sources I consulted about his administration, said that he read the PDB and got a lot out of it. But his inability to keep to his schedule made a daily, in-person briefing impossible to maintain, and he often engaged his daily intelligence report out of sight of intelligence officers. Because Clinton’s predecessor in the Oval Office, George H. W. Bush, saw a CIA briefer every morning to discuss the PDB’s contents, it was natural for many at the CIA to see Clinton as “disconnected.”

Many others understood that each president’s style helps dictate how the President’s Daily Brief is received. Forcing a briefing on someone who learns well by processing the written word risks as much as it gains.

You mention that President Bush, four years after IRTPA, didn’t even notice that the DNI had taken over the PDB since “the CIA analysts were still the briefers.” Do you think CIA still has a stranglehold over the product and the analysis going to the White House?

The President’s Daily Brief has now been a community product for more than a decade, and yet everyone on all sides acknowledges that the CIA still provides the bulk of the book’s content. That is different than control of the PDB. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence produces and handles briefings of the book, period. Community efforts on the PDB allow better incorporation of all intelligence information and analysis.

It comes down to people—do various agencies’ analysts fight over space in the PDB … or do they work together to develop the best product for president? To the extent it’s the latter, that’s good government.

When intelligence analysis was performed via ticker, newspaper & typewriter, there simply wasn’t the volume of information that analysts deal with today. Do you think analysis is “better” or “worse” — however defined — now that analysts have access to more forms of data at their fingertips?

Although information overload threatens timely analysis on some topics, many other front-burner issues for the president revolve around the precise plans and capabilities of hostile foreign actors.

For these intelligence questions, often open sources reveal little and even classified information is hard to come by, leaving plenty of room for insightful analysis beyond the proverbial firehose of available data.

How would you rate Obama as a consumer of intelligence?

It’s too early to say with any confidence. For earlier administrations, we have the benefit of input from not only the living presidents and vice presidents and the majority of other PDB recipients, but also intelligence producers and briefers and relevant documentary sources. The information base for a sitting administration is much smaller and probably more biased.

A very senior former policymaker recently told me that the PDB should be radically overhauled since it consumes too much time and is not meeting the needs of senior policymakers, especially on economic matters. How would you respond to this critique?

In most administrations, the President’s Daily Brief has evolved to better serve its first customer’s needs and style. I see no reason why this won’t continue, whether by gradual adjustments or radical overhaul, to ensure that something of value to the president emerges from what has indeed become an extensive and expensive PDB process.

This is only speculation, as I don’t know President Obama’s reaction to his PDBs, but I suspect that if he received something akin to the now-declassified daily intelligence products that John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson received, he would find them amateurish and ignore them—or, more likely, ask for something more robust. Similarly, and this is also only speculation because I don’t see each day’s PDB now, I suspect that if JFK and LBJ saw today’s PDB, they would find it full of dense, thick prose and ignore it—or, more likely, ask for something more casually readable.

That’s a long way of saying: it depends on the president’s style and preferences.

If you could fundamentally alter one aspect of the PDB or how it is presented for the next President and his/her staff, what would it be?  

First: Engage the president early and often about the format and content of the President’s Daily Brief. Senior officials have often defaulted to guessing what kinds of things should be in the PDB, but I agree with George H. W. Bush that nothing takes the place of clear, direct communication with the commander in chief. He said, “Don’t let anybody else tell you what the President wants or needs in the PDB—ask him.”

Second: Think carefully about who should see the PDB. Given our national obsession with the presidency, it’s easy to forget that the president’s book of secrets has never gone only to him. Each administration has developed its own mix of extra-presidential readers: It might be just the national security advisor or it might be dozens of other officials, but most often it has fallen somewhere in between.

A distribution list kept too narrow allows the inclusion of ultra-classified material but can limit the PDB’s usefulness; the president can’t easily talk with relevant advisers about its content. Wider dissemination, though, can lead editors to leave out of the PDB the most sensitive sources and cutting-edge analysis. Finding the right balance deserves careful deliberation and routine re-evaluation—not just go-with-the-flow momentum.

You can follow David Priess on Twitter at @davidpriess.

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