Have you ever wondered what the U.S. President’s top secret intelligence briefing is like? In this episode of the Stratfor Podcast, we ask former intelligence officer, manager and daily briefer at the CIA David Priess about his latest book The President’s Book of Secrets: The Untold Story of Intelligence Briefings to America’s Presidents.
Lessons From Old Case Files with Stratfor Chief Security Officer Fred Burton
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Fred Burton [00:00:01] Hello, I'm Chief Security Officer Fred Burton, and this podcast is brought to you by Stratfor, the world's leading geopolitical intelligence platform. To learn more about Stratfor Worldview, Threat Lens, or Stratfor's custom advisory services, visit us at Stratfor.com.
David Priess [00:00:30] There were days when you were presenting information to the senior officials of the US government that had life and death consequences that they were going to make a decision on, and you had to be as clear as possible about what was known, what was not known, and what the assessment was based on the available information.
Ben Sheen [00:00:55] Welcome to the Stratfor Podcast, focused on geopolitics and world affairs from Stratfor.com. I'm your host, Ben Sheen. Have you ever wondered what the US president's top secret daily intelligence briefiing is like? In this episode of the podcast, Stratfor Chief Security Officer Fred Burton sits down with David Priess, a former daily briefer for the CIA, and author of The President's Book of Secrets, the Untold Story of Intelligence Briefings to America's Presidents, and they'll be discussing the history of the daily briefings and how they've changd from president to president.
Fred Burton [00:01:38] Hi I'm Fred Burton, here today with Dr. David Priess, who is a former intelligence officer, manager, and daily briefer at the CIA. He is the author of a great book called The President's Book of Secrets: The Untold Story of Intelligence Briefings to America's Presidents. It has a great foreword by former President Bush, 41, who as David noted in his book, is the only president to have also served as the Director of the Central Intelligence and Vice President of the United States. I also note that he was a former US ambassador to China, on my watch. David, thanks for being with us today.
David Priess [00:02:18] Thanks Fred for having me, I appreciate it.
Fred Burton [00:02:21] David, have presidents always received intelligence information?
David Priess [00:02:25] No, in fact the vast majority of our presidents didn't receive anything we would call modern-day intelligence at all. And that's a little funny if you think about it, because George Washington, the first president, did. He was in fact our first Spymaster In Chief, and was comfortable with, certainly the collection of raw intelligence, but he and most of his successors did not get any intelligence information analyzed for them, they didn't have people pulling this together. The best they had was the Secretary of State, or eventually the bureaucracy around the Secretary of State, pulling together some information from diplomatic cables and rumors. But it wasn't really until World War II that we had any intelligence effort to speak of for the Commander In Chief.
Fred Burton [00:03:13] That's fascinating. I know from my old organization at the State Department, we had the Bureau of Secret Intelligence, which was put together in 1916. Did you ever come across that in your research for your book?
David Priess [00:03:25] What I found with that was that it was very small and President Wilson didn't really get much from it. In fact Wilson got more intelligence information from the British representative in Washington than he got from all elements of the US government combined.
Fred Burton [00:03:43] That's amazing. I know you cover in the book, how did Kennedy's product evolve into the document that many people have heard of known as the President's Daily Brief or the PDB for short?
David Priess [00:03:56] That's right, before John Kennedy there was only the beginnings of an intelligence apparatus. FDR had a war room during World War II, and he would get some inputs directly from Wild Bill Donovan of the OSS. Mostly those would be raw human reports, but occasionally there would be some memos from the researchers and analysts who also worked for the Office of Strategic Services. But after the war, Truman disbanded the OSS. And it was a short time later that the Central Intelligence Group, later the Central Intelligence Agency, came to be. But the products that were produced for presidents Truman and Eisenhower were not personally tailored to them, they were simply produced for what analysts thought some senior officials might like. With Kennedy though, they decided that this is just not going to work. His style is just too different from his predecessor, General Eisenhower. So they asked CIA to come up with a document that pulled together what they thought the president needed to know each morning, and to write it in a style that would appeal to John F. Kennedy, who liked to bounce between topics and move around quickly. They did that, they created something called the President's Intelligence Checklist, which contained only a few items each day, and it was written in a journalistic style without all the classification markings and government gobbledygook that filled up every other document he was seeing.
Fred Burton [00:05:20] Other than the president of the United States, who else, early on in the process, got to see the PDB?
David Priess [00:05:29] With that very first product, with John Kennedy, it was limited only to Kennedy, his National Security Advisor, and a couple of their assistants in the White House, and then to the leadership of the CIA. It didn't go to anybody else. And that presented a real problem. Because Kennedy took a liking to this product. And he decided to start tasking his Secretary of State, his Secretary of Defense and others based on what he was reading, and they were blindsided, they had no idea where these things were coming from. About six months after the creation of this product in 1961 they started giving it to Dean Rusk at State and to Robert McNamara at Defense. But they never gave it to one crucial person, and that was the Vice President, Lyndon Johnson. The CIA was told by the executive secretary of the National Security Council, under no circumstances should this document go to Lyndon Johnson. And that of course created quite an interesting day in November 1963 when one day Lyndon Johnson is president, and suddenly there's this document, clearly not created overnight for him, called the President's Intelligence Checklist, and he's never seen it before.
Fred Burton [00:06:41] Unbelievable. David, in the course of your research, any insight as to why Johnson was cut out of the loop on that? That sounds like something that J. Edgar Hoover would have done.
David Priess [00:06:55] Yes, it's definitely a function of the intense dislike that Kennedy and even more so his staff had for Johnson. They didn't get along well at all. Kennedy did not give Johnson access to all of the top secret material that he saw. They just didn't include him in it at all, seeing as much as a rival as a part of the administration. And that didn't work well in that case, of course, and it didn't follow the precedent that President Truman had hoped that he would bring in to start when in 1952 he was even offering intelligence briefings to presidential candidates as a way of preparing people who might take the office. Most presidents since Kennedy though, have given access to their vice presidents, to be able to see the President's Daily Brief. And in fact some of them became vibrant readers of it, and ended up interacting extensively with the intelligence community around their daily briefings of this highly exclusive document.
Fred Burton [00:07:58] Help us understand the process, how is the PDB put together? Could you walk through the mechanisms, and somewhat of the decision-making process that goes behind the scenes, or behind the curtains so to speak, regarding what goes into that document?
David Priess [00:08:16] Anyone who has worked in a newspaper, or in journalism at all, will recognize the process. Because it's a daily document that traditionally has come out first thing in the morning, which means that you've got to have the reporters and the writers working on it the day before, often overnight, sometimes right up to the point of publication you've got intelligence analysts who are looking at all of the information available to them, from CIA spies, from the National Security Agency's listening posts, satellite imagery, diplomatic reporting from the State Department, taking all of that information and putting it together to help reduce the uncertainty for the president's national security decisions. That could be that they're anticipating something the president has on his schedule that he will need insight on that very morning. Or it could be a longer-term piece that they've been working on for quite a bit of time to talk about a wider strategic issue, and the piece has finally become ready. Either way, there has to be a product each morning for the president of the United States, and a team of editors and senior managers often will take a look at this product to make sure that it meets the president's needs. And it's not a long product, it's in the very name, it's the President's Daily Brief. The idea is, the president has no shortage of demands on his time, and this product is designed to give him the intelligence analysis that is most useful for that day for the president of the United States.
Fred Burton [00:09:44] David, you've done this job, in the course of presenting the PDB to presidents, is there an exchange that comes back and forth? I mean does the president look at you and say oh my goodness, where did you get this from?
David Priess [00:09:59] It depends on the customer. In my case, I was an intelligence briefer during the George W. Bush administration, and my daily customers were the Attorney General and the FBI Director, a gentleman named Robert Mueller, that no one's heard of since. But when I brief them, they're very interactive, and it was always a conversation. Talking about the assessment, talking about the implications, bringing in some other information that didn't make the cut into the final piece. The presidents themselves have varied on this front. Many presidents have chosen simply to read the daily book, and not to take an in-person briefing from a CIA officer. In fact, that is the dominant model across the 60 years of so of the President's Daily Brief. A few presidents have taken in-person briefings. Gerald Ford was the first, for the first year of his administration he had daily briefings with a CIA briefer. George H.W. Bush did it for all four years of his administration, and then George W. Bush had daily intelligence briefings for all eight years of his presidency. Presidents like Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and now Donald Trump, have also taken some in-person briefings, but it's not necessarily every day. And in the case of Bill Clinton in particular, his apparent constitutional inability to keep to a schedule, people always talked about being on Clinton time, made it very hard to keep a regular briefing on his calendar.
Fred Burton [00:11:27] I imagine that this process is one that can be very stressful. Having said that, I think it's been my experience too, from my years in the government, that people forget that very senior government people at times are just like you and I. What would be one of the more lighter moments that you've had with one of these very senior government officials?
David Priess [00:11:49] I can say from my experience that it is both the most serious intense job one could imagine. There were days when you were presenting information to the senior officials of the US government that had life and death consequences, that they were going to make a decision on, and you had to be as clear as possible about what was known, what was not known, and what the assessment was based on available information. And at the same time, there could be some very good, lighthearted moments. One of the best from the interviews that I did, is from all the people involved, they told me about a briefing for George H.W. Bush, when Director Webster, who at the time was Director of CIA, he decided to add on to the President's Daily Briefing session a special session, where he had an officer who had designed one of the agency's new disguises. And she came into the Oval Office in disguise. And they had the regular briefing, and then she starts talking to the president about this new technology that we've developed, and nobody else seems to notice that she's in a disguise until she takes that disguise off, and impresses everybody. That's the kind of thing you could do with Bush 41 as a former DCI and as someone who appreciated intelligence and knew it well. He could deal with it both very seriously, but he could also enjoy some of those lighthearted moments. He liked getting a dose of humor in his daily book. And one editor at the time told me that when there was a piece in the President's Daily Brief about the movement of Soviet tanks
David Priess [00:13:22] out of Eastern Germany, this was the end of the Cold War period, and there was a piece analyzing the movement of armor out of Germany. And they titled the piece Tanks For The Memories. Not the kind of thing you could normally do in a very serious product, but it was allowed then. The second one that comes to mind is with his successor, with Bill Clinton. Is Bill Clinton one day picks up his President's Daily Brief, starts reading it, and he reads story after story, he told me, about crises around the world that had been developing, in some cases, overnight, and all of them were based on things he himself had said or done. And he's flipping through this book thinking the world is going to hell in a handbasket, why is this happening? And he told me, it took him a few minutes to realize that this was a fake PDB that the CIA produced as a 50th birthday present. It was his 50th birthday and they decided to have a little fun with the Commander In Chief.
Fred Burton [00:14:19] It's also good to hear that the CIA does have a sense of humor, David.
David Priess [00:14:25] Yeah, it's often a dark sense of humor, and that's the risk of something like this. You give people who are used to looking at the worst side of human nature, with terrorists, with autocratic leaders, and you give them license for humor, it can be gallows humor at times.
Ben Sheen [00:14:43] We'll get back to the conversation with Stratfor's Fred Burton and David Priess in just one moment. But if you're interested in reading more about the history of intelligence, national security and counter-terrorism, be sure to check out Lessons From Old Case Files, a series of Fred Burton's reflections and other stories about his experience in the US State Department, and they're all available in Stratfor Worldview. If you're not already a Worldview member, you can find more information about individual, team and enterprise access at worldview.stratfor.com/subscribe. And if you'd like to continue the conversation with either David Priess or Stratfor's Fred Burton, they're both on Twitter, @DavidPriess, and that's spelt P-R-I-E-S-S, and @Fred_Burton. Now back to the second part of our conversation about The President's Book of Secrets: The Untold Story of Intelligence Briefings to America's Presidents.
Fred Burton [00:15:40] David, what role did the PDB play before and after the terrorist attacks in the US on 9/11?
David Priess [00:15:47] Before 9/11 the President's Daily Brief was exclusively a CIA document. It incorporated information collected by all agencies of the US government, and open sources, but it was generally written up, produced, edited, briefed, by CIA officers. Therefore, only rarely did it include information on what you would call domestic intelligence. One exception was a piece in August of 2001, a piece that became famous after the 9/11 Commission released it, which was called Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US. There had certainly been a steady drumbeat of pieces at the end of the Clinton administration and the beginning of the Bush administration about Osama Bin Laden and his network and his threat. A lot of the intelligence pointed to attacks overseas, which Bin Laden had done for years. This piece was the one that said he has the intent to strike in the United States. And it laid out the evidence, some of it dated, but the evidence showing that he had an intent to strike in the US. What's interesting about it is at the very end, tacked on, is a little bit about some FBI investigations into the Al-Qaeda network in the United States. And that was about the only insight into the attacks. It turned out nothing in there pointed to the attacks, it was more of a historical, generic look at Bin Laden's intent. Boy did things change after 9/11 however. Suddenly you had the active incorporation of what we would call domestic intelligence, that is information largely from the FBI about investigations in the United States. And eventually the President's Daily Brief
David Priess [00:17:28] got taken over by the new organization called the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and one of the missions of the DNI was to ensure that all elements of the intelligence community contributed to the PDB. The PDB became the primary way of getting the president daily assessments about everything having to do with terrorism and homeland security, both domestic and foreign.
Fred Burton [00:17:53] That's interesting. Before 9/11, the PDB did not include, or traditionally did not include FBI information, correct?
David Priess [00:18:01] Generally it did not. It could, but it was not something that was set up. You know very well there was often a wall put between FBI operations and information and CIA operations and information, such that most analysts at the CIA had no clue what the Bureau was doing on things related to their work. The only prominent case I could find of the President's Daily Brief including a significant element about a US person, or a domestic situation, was in the days after Kennedy's assassination, when there was a note in the President's Daily Brief titled Oswald, and it pointed out that press stories to the effect that Lee Harvey Oswald had visited Mexico City are true according to our information, and it said Oswald visited both the Cuban and Soviet embassies, back on the 28th of September, trying to arrange for visas to travel to the USSR. That was an item about a US citizen in a document that was explicitly about foreign intelligence. But that was a rarity. Until 9/11, that just didn't happen.
Fred Burton [00:19:07] Interesing. Do you know, David, in the course of your research, whether or not the old FBI under Hoover produced a similar document that was given to either the Attorney General or to the president?
David Priess [00:19:20] There is no evidence of a direct parallel to this in any other way. Including a daily FBI report like this. After 9/11, several agencies and departments started developing things like this. None of them took off in the same way, none of them had the same natural access, nor probably the same daily volume of information and assessments that would be useful to the president. But there certainly were documents from the FBI that would get up to the president, simply not part of a daily routine that has become part of our national security history.
Fred Burton [00:19:55] Do you know if other nation-states have a similar process? For example, does MI6 do this for the British prime minister? Do the Germans, do the French, do the Aussies do this?
David Priess [00:20:09] Fred, I didn't research that directly, but in the time since I've written the book I have had people come to me and say things like, well I think the Brits have something close to this in the United Kingdom. The only thing I've found in the course of researching this book, which was focused on the US, did relate to Russia. And that was because George W. Bush on occasion would bring foreign leaders into his daily briefings of the President's Daily Brief.
Fred Burton [00:20:38] Interesting.
David Priess [00:20:39] And that sounds odd, because it's a very sensitive document, but he would always talk to his intelligence officers before it to make sure they knew in advance, so that it could be a very special book that day that would not violate any national security sensitivities. But one day, the Russian leader, Vladimir Putin, came to a PDB session in Crawford, Texas, at Bush's ranch. And they prepared a very special book that day, but the Russian president just couldn't resist putting his mark on PDB history. He signed his copy of the book, which US officials naturally did not let him keep. But the most memorable part of the session wasn't about the content of the PDB itself. After the very serious working session, Putin walked up to George Tenet, the CIA Director who was attending the session, and said to him, you know we have a book like this too. Which Tenet just looked at him and laughed and said, well we'd love to see yours.
Fred Burton [00:21:34] That's a good story, that really is, that's fascinating. Either the Russians had one before that, or they very quickly started to produce one, is the takeaway, correct?
David Priess [00:21:46] Or they didn't have one at all but Putin wanted to be seen puffing up his chest saying of course, we do a similar thing to you. I don't know, because I didn't analyze that topic in particular, but I do find it to be a really interesting footnote to the history of our own President's Daily Brief.
Fred Burton [00:22:03] It certainly is. David, inside the CIA, in the course of working on the PDB, is this assignment viewed as a good one, or is it one that people would rather be posted to some other kind of job based on the nature of the business? Is this a career-enhancing assignment, in essence?
David Priess [00:22:27] Yeah, in the broadest sense, virtually everybody in the intelligence community contributes to the President's Daily Brief. Either in the collection of information, or in some other way. In terms of actually writing the pieces that go into the President's Daily Brief, and then actually being one of the briefers who takes it to a senior customer, that is, and historically has been, a high point. You want to get your analysis in front of the Commander In Chief when an important decision has to be made. It's the ethics of intelligence that you're producing it in order to help reduce that uncertainty on those tough decisions. Briefing it, there's only a small handful of people who are briefers at any one time. Some administrations have had very few people who get direct briefings. In most recent administrations, there have been more, but it's still a small group. Some of those people who were briefers back in the day grew up in their careers to be the most senior leaders of the intelligence community. The most prominent example in recent years is Michael Morell, who was Deputy Director of the CIA and Acting Director on a couple of occasions, and he had been George W. Bush's daily intelligence briefer at the beginning of his administration, including on September 11, 2001, itself.
Fred Burton [00:23:45] What do we know about this president's use of the PDB?
David Priess [00:23:51] The serving president, the sitting incumbent president, has traditionally been very hesitant to talk about details of the President's Daily Brief. We don't have a lot of information. But we do have some things, because Director Mike Pompeo of CIA and the Director of National Intelligence, Dan Coates, have both gone on the record talking a bit about these briefings. They talk about a very active, engaged president when these PDB sessions happen. They talk about having to be on their toes. We've also heard the president say publicly that he does not like to read long documents, he does not like to have to pore through reports that go on and on, I think he even said that he prefers bullet points. Well all of that put together tells me the president is engaging with his President's Daily Brief, he's doing it in the form of discussion, rather than just silently reading it to himself, and it's probably giving him quick judgments, it's probably giving him snapshots rather than huge mosaics, because that's the style that he wants. And that really is the story of the President's Daily Brief, this book of secrets, over its 50-plus year history, is every president gets it tailored to the individual style that he wants it in order for it to be most effective.
Fred Burton [00:25:14] David, that's all the time we have today. I can't say this strong enough, for anybody interested in the intelligence process, geopolitics, how the system actually works, I strongly encourage you to go out and pick up a copy of Dr. David Priess's book, The President's Book of Secrets: The Untold Story of Intelligence Briefings to America's Presidents. David, thank you so much for being with us today.
David Priess [00:25:42] You're welcome, Fred.
Ben Sheen [00:25:55] That wraps up another episode of the Stratfor Podcast. Thanks again for joining us for our conversation with Stratfor's Fred Burton and David Priess. If you'd like to check out Priess's book, The President's Book of Secrets, we'll include a link in the show notes. And if you'd like your own daily intelligence briefing, be sure to visit us at Stratfor Worldview, for daily geopolitical analysis, forecasting, and industry insights. If you're not already a member, you can learn more about individual, team, and enterprise access at worldview.stratfor.com/subscribe. Worldview members can always contribute to the conversation by sharing their insights in our forum section. That's where you can engage with other members, as well as Stratfor analysts, editors, and contributors on the latest developments. Or, if you have a comment, or even an idea for a future episode of the podcast, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or you can give us a call at 1-512-744-4300, extension 3917 to leave a message. We appreciate your feedback. And for more geopolitical intelligence, analysis and forecasting that brings global events into valuable perspective, follow us on Twitter, @Stratfor.