Upon entering the Oval Office, every president since Harry Truman has faced a seemingly mundane decision with huge implications: how to take his daily intelligence report. Starting with Lyndon Johnson, this book of secrets has come in the form of the President’s Daily Brief, or PDB—the most tightly guarded daily publication on the face of the earth.
Intelligence officers for more than 50 years have made their way to the White House to hand-deliver the PDB to the president or to the national security advisor, who then gets it to the president. Writers of PDB articles aim to give the president—and the handful of top advisors he allows to also see it—the most accurate, timely, and objective information and analysis from both classified and open sources.
In the seemingly hundreds of debates and town halls of the past few months, intelligence overall has received scant attention; daily briefings, in the form of the PDB, none at all. The electorate thus lacks insight into how each prospective president will receive his or her daily intelligence analysis to best prepare to defend the homeland and protect U.S. interests abroad.
Engaging deeply with the President’s Daily Brief does not ensure foreign policy success. But employing it poorly virtually guarantees the commander-in-chief will miss chances to preempt threats and seize international opportunities.
Gerald Ford, George H. W. Bush, and George W. Bush held face-to-face meetings each working day with a CIA officer. Ford dropped his briefer for his last year in office, and other presidents have similarly just read the book alone during the day or incorporated the PDB, without an intelligence briefer, into other national security meetings. Some have bounced back and forth among various approaches.
What difference does it make? Two examples from the early 1990s offer clues.
Upon taking office in 1993, Bill Clinton intended to receive intelligence briefings each day. But by late the following year, demands on the president’s schedule—and his own inability to bring meetings to a timely close—pushed him to shorten or postpone daily PDB sessions. Increasingly, when top aides had important policy matters to discuss with Clinton during his national security time, the CIA briefing fell off the schedule altogether.
In support of a United Nations mission in Somalia that fall, US forces faced fierce resistance trying to arrest militia leader Mohamed Farrah Aidid and his henchmen in Mogadishu. Somali forces on October 3 downed two U.S. Black Hawk helicopters, trapping their occupants in enemy territory and spurring a difficult overnight rescue mission that left 18 Americans killed, many more wounded, and hundreds of Somalis dead. The events of October 3–4 became known as “Black Hawk Down.”
Investigations by the press and Clinton’s own President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, or PFIAB, revealed crucial errors—but not on the part of intelligence agencies. The original draft board report asserted that the president could not have been surprised after what had been in his daily intelligence leading up to the crisis. “The intelligence failure in Somalia was right in the National Security Council,” said the PFIAB’s chairman at the time. “They expected intelligence to make their decisions for them, not just give them information about what was going on there. . . . It made for considerable confusion right at the top.”
The PFIAB’s recommendations to the president included getting the PDB delivered personally again. And, sure enough, face-to-face-briefings picked up at that point. “I was still learning my way and trying to pay attention,” Clinton told me. “It was a very sobering moment for me.” Senior sources soon were telling the Washington Post that the White House had regularized the national security briefing, which featured a revamped PDB with bolder headlines and punchier text. For a time, Clinton saw his CIA briefer more often, two or three times a week.
And the daily intelligence briefings delivered the goods by warning of the first Chechen war in 1994, calling the outcome of various foreign elections in 1995–96, and keeping ahead of the curve in anticipation of Boris Yeltsin’s various government shake-ups in Russia.
Compare this with three years earlier, when George H. W. Bush was discussing the PDB at his home in Kennebunkport, Maine, with career CIA analyst Bob Gates, then serving as deputy national security advisor. Gates recalls Bush focusing on a PDB article that judged anti-Gorbachev forces were likely to attempt a coup before the Soviet leader could sign a treaty transferring significant authority to the USSR’s constituent republics.
After reading the assessment, Bush looked up from his book. “Should I take this seriously?”
“Yes,” Gates replied, “and here’s why.” Playing the role of intelligence briefer, he reviewed the warnings that CIA experts had been putting out for some time. And sure enough, within twenty-four hours, a cabal of Gorbachev’s opponents locked him into his dacha and seized control of the institutions of Soviet power.
These cases do not prove that all presidents are better off with in-person briefings. One size does not fit all; people process information and use their time differently. It makes no sense to force a face-to-face session on someone who learns best by processing the written word alone.
But the advantages of in-person briefings, on balance, outweigh the downsides. Although they take precious time on the president’s schedule away from scores of other pressing topics, they allow presidents to ask questions about assumptions underlying the PDB’s predictions, probe briefers about the intelligence community’s confidence in various judgments, discuss alternative assessments, and explore higher-order implications.
So which candidates left standing after Super Tuesday will commit to PDB briefings if elected, thus enabling an intelligence professional to add value to the printed page and answer questions on the spot? In the wake of issues ranging from the never-ending civil war in Syria to homeland terrorism to Russian assertiveness in Europe, voters deserve to know.
Hillary Clinton received the PDB as Secretary of State and had a rare window on its various uses during eight years as First Lady. Marco Rubio has served on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, gaining familiarity with Top Secret briefings (albeit not the PDB itself). The others still in the race have little or no direct experience with such high-level intelligence.
Knowing how each candidate plans to preserve this channel of objective analysis will help Americans decide which ones are most likely to use the daily book of secrets effectively—and which ones risk turning the PDB into a very expensive paperweight.