Review: The President’s Book of Secrets

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The Central Intelligence Agency has many missions, of which keeping the President – America’s top national security decision maker – well informed is one, if not the, most important. Thus, David Priess’s unprecedented history of the President’s Daily Brief (PDB), The President’s Book of Secrets, is a welcome change of pace from the traditional spy yarn or tell-all books that dominate the intelligence literature today. Priess’ work makes an invaluable contribution to the study of intelligence, which no library on national security is complete without.

His extensive research includes interviews with the majority of the PDB’s living recipients and producers going back five decades. Of particular note is the fact that former Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) and President George H.W. Bush wrote the foreword – a sign of the seriousness and appreciation Bush has for the PDB and of the respect he has for the author.

The research is only one part of the success of Priess’ writing. The fact that he served as a briefer on the PDB team during the George W. Bush administration means that he could ask the right questions, identify the pertinent themes, and get his interlocutors to speak candidly about their perceptions of “The Book” and their roles in this heretofore highly compartmented, even secret, club. This is what intelligence officers, and the best scholars, do.

The themes Priess brings out are all the pertinent ones, on top of being a chronicle of the creation and the evolution of the PDB: from the Daily Summary proffered to President Truman, to the President’s Intelligence Checklist for Kennedy, and LBJ’s own book, which is the modern progenitor of today’s briefings. Some of the themes include:

  • The unique role of CIA as an adviser to the President and White House, an agency that values objectivity to the point that not only does it have physical separation from Washington but also is beholden to no Cabinet Secretary’s policymaking bureaucracy.
  • That the PDB is only as good as the feedback it receives from its customers. The briefing is less useful and valuable when its producers have to guess at the President’s requirements, and the best way to get those requirements are direct face-to-face briefings by CIA analysts or periodic meetings between the president and the director.
  • The self-imposed pressure CIA leadership feels when every new president takes office, to win his or her trust. Priess’s book details a palpable obsession with ensuring that CIA make itself useful and pulls out all the stops to make its best impression, and that is through the PDB. In addition and even more important, Priess describes the pressure CIA feels to provide the President with the best intelligence possible so he can make the best decisions.
  • The power and responsibility that individual briefers hold. When my colleagues and I pitched our PDB-themed television show, State of Affairs, what resonated among studio executives, actors, directors, and producers was that setting the President’s national security table every single morning – with the potential to inform and effect policy decisions – was an awesome responsibility. Also, depending on the personalities involved, these briefers represented CIA as an institution which again, was a big burden to carry.
  • Every President is different. Some are contemplative readers, while others prefer to have an interactive session with analysts to dig down into the deeper meaning of any given piece. But to treat each President the same, by giving him the same type of PDB as his predecessor, invites lack of interest or outright dismissal.

Priess’s prose is highly readable, fast paced, more interesting and even suspenseful than many readers might expect when given a story about analysts doing their work. Priess is an exceptional raconteur, and his style makes characters come alive on the page. His careful attention to minor characters – low level but talented analysts – toiling during the early days of the PDB, effectively carries through a story arc that reveals many of them taking on senior executive leadership roles at the Agency, bringing with them all their lessons learned. I do not use the term “characters” lightly; one of the most vivid and incidentally, perhaps the most effective briefer in CIA history, was Chuck Peters during Bush 41’s tenure. With David’s telling, I recalled my own experience 25 years ago smelling the cigar smoke in Chuck’s office as he edited my piece in front of my eyes.

To the extent that there should be more to The President’s Book of Secrets, Priess perhaps could have explored more deeply how ownership of the PDB by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence has affected the quality of the work. To be more specific, has the re-creation of the PDB as an document fully coordinated by the entire Intelligence Community—rather than just the CIA—resulted in better insight, or are we left with least common denominator analysis? Indeed, Priess’s description about strongly differing views between Central Command and CIA analysts over how much Desert Shield had degraded the Iraqi military in 1991 before the ground war was an excellent example of the fact that competitive analysis works.

Another area Priess could have explored would be an examination of the internal processes at CIA that govern production and review of PDB items today, under CIA Director John Brennan’s “modernization” (don’t you dare say “reorganization”) program that integrates operators and analysts into centers. This is particularly important because, although the DNI owns the PDB, CIA still produces some 80 percent of the content. Granted, the jury may still be out and the introduction of the organizational reforms too new and too recent for Priess to have tackled.

Regardless, these should not detract from the value that this book provides to the historical record; and even more critical, the value that it provides current practitioners and producers of the PDB. What’s more, like all good intelligence that is timely, relevant, accurate, and actionable, his work will be of even greater value to those who aspire to the presidency today, because tomorrow, they will have to deal with the world as it is and not as he or she wants it to be. CIA’s role is to speak truth to power.

As I finished Priess’s work, I was suddenly reminded by the words of spymaster George Smiley in John Le Carré’s novel, THE HONOURABLE SCHOOLBOY:

“The philosophy was simple. The task of an intelligence service…was not to play chase games but to deliver intelligence to its customers. If it failed to do this, those customers would resort to other, less scrupulous sellers or, worse, indulge in amateurish self-help.”

State of Play

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