Sound decision-making rests on two pillars: accurate information and a keen intellect with which to process it. This is no less true for world leaders running a top-secret counterterrorism operation than it is for young professionals searching for highly coveted policy jobs. Given the scope and magnitude of the former, according to David Priess, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the rest of the intelligence community considers its primary mission to provide the president with accurate information and sound analysis. In his new book, The President’s Book of Secrets: The Untold History of Intelligence Briefings to America’s Presidents from Kennedy to Obama, the award-winning former CIA intelligence briefer shares the inside history of the modern presidency and the classified analyses that shape their national security choices.
Produced by the CIA Directorate of Intelligence (DI) since the Johnson administration, the President’s Daily Brief (PDB) is considered the president’s primary source of daily updates and assessments of global developments. The document is the main character and protagonist of this history, the jewel of the intelligence community’s efforts across the decades to “provide accurate, timely, and objective information from classified and unclassified sources alike to help the president defend the homeland and protect US interests abroad.”
Priess follows in the vein of tell-all Washington accounts, shedding light on how the leadership styles of those in power and how the dynamics of the highest offices affect the business of executing policy. In particular, he is focused on the role of intelligence in that process: how the creation and delivery of intelligence is molded to and interacts with the unique chemistry and varied personalities within an administration. “The most fascinating issues about the PDB do not involve the exact substance of its articles,” he writes, “but, instead, revolve around the personalities of its producers and its readers, the process of its creation and delivery, and the place it holds in the daily work of national security at the highest level.”
One of Priess’s primary themes is the evolution of the delivery of that information to better serve the decision-makers. He explores how the intelligence community tailored to the needs of its “customers,” conformed to their busy schedules, and adopted new tools as they became available. Priess celebrates President George H.W. Bush’s preference for receiving daily intelligence briefings on the PDB with his National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft. (That President Bush wrote a preface for The President’s Book of Secrets suggests that the admiration is mutual.) In today’s White House, President Obama receives his PDB on an iPad that he reviews on his own. The CIA takes advantage of the technological upgrade to provide the president with interactive graphics, embedded video, and links to source materials.
Intelligence procedure felt the pull of politics. CIA and DI directors jockeyed for meetings with oft-preoccupied presidents and to ensure that they spent time with the PDB. Priess details how the PDB’s authors felt emotionally connected to the president’s interest in reading their work. Priess paints a dour picture of DI analysts during the early Johnson and Clinton administrations when an overworked president gave little if any time to wrestling with their articles.
Briefers themselves are given pride of place as well. Perhaps unsurprising given the author’s professional background, it is nonetheless a rarity to learn the names of those whose responsibility it is to explain world-altering intelligence to the president. Many of these anecdotes offer comedic relief. One of President Reagan’s briefers shared with him a collection of “get-well-soon” cards written by his young daughter and her classmates while recovering from the assassination attempt on his life. Vice President Al Gore listened to a knock-knock joke from his briefer’s child that ended with him pronounced a “banana head.” The most moving passages regarding these individuals are reserved for Michael Morrel and his guidance of President George W. Bush through September 11, 2001.
For its insights, The President’s Book of Secrets fails to take the next logical step towards the value of these intelligence digests. Priess spends a couple of pages at the end of the book discussing major questions of such products and practices, but his conclusions are unsatisfying, perhaps due to the classified nature of content. He does not resolve whether the PDB provided the president with a useful tool for national security decision-making or not.
A student or policymaker at the nexus of intelligence and national security will want to know how effectively intelligence materials serve as inputs in decision-making. Did the PDB-driven debates at the NSC lead to good policy outcomes? Did briefing sessions enable better judgement? Did decision-makers ignore these assessments in favor of ideological conviction? The President’s Book of Secrets is too light on case studies drawing analytical lines between international challenges, the information provided to the president, and their ability to then make sound decisions.
In fact, the instances in the book where the complications of world politics enter the plot suggest the PDB offered limited utility. CIA analysts failed to read the tea leaves correctly at times, a product of unchecked assumptions and conventional thinking standing in the way of the facts. In other illustrations, the constant churn of information resulted in the failure to alert the president to critical threats the CIA identified before they happened. PDB articles detailing al Qaeda’s intentions to strike the United States, using commercial aircraft no less, seemed to have slipped past presidential consciousness with tragic results. In other situations, no doubt, the inability to recruit and implant intelligence sources in sensitive areas limited the information the DI could share. Many other instances of seeming intelligence failure come to mind that are not addressed here.
In The President’s Book of Secrets, David Priess succeeds in lifting up the curtain on the personalities behind national security and how the government’s leading analysts bend to those characters to fulfill their duty. Yet the story does not end there. Priess explains how this connection developed and operated but fails to explain why it mattered.
Adam Cohen is a research assistant at a top think tank in Washington, DC. His work centers on the U.S. National Security Council and U.S. national security decision-making. He is a staff writer for Charged Affairs.
Image: “Tablet Briefing” (credit: the White House)