Then there was the fact that Lane had recently taken control of his daily intelligence briefing. This surprised and delighted the CIA. The PDB—the President’s Daily Briefing—was cloak and dagger revelation, top secret gospel written daily, read only within the holiest of holies. The PDB was the most revered work of the American intelligence community, the very reason for its existence, secret knowledge made manifest unto a select few.
Until recently, however, President Lane had no questions. He had refused to meet at all with the CIA’s briefers. He preferred instead to let Dr. Quin Rivera read the PDB, talk with the officers if she thought it necessary, and spoon feed him ten minutes of a desultory and derivative summary of the summary of summaries. In the event, the chastened CIA briefers’ only role was to wait alone in a bare anteroom until Rivera had finished reading the PDB. She then handed it back without comment. The officers escorted the iPad back to Langley, where it would be “rinsed and repeated” for the next morning’s ritual.
One recent morning that had all changed.
From the novel Cronatos Hybamper—An Extraordinary Incident, by Tom Diaz
These excerpts are from a longer passage in Cronatos Hybamper about a day during which the worm turns.
President Roger Wilson Lane, an accidental and wholly unqualified hack, has been passive. He has been content to be manipulated by the people around him. But internal changes in the man have come with experience on the job. The President is shedding his old ways. The sucker fish and manipulators have—in their arrogance and selfishness—failed to notice a number of signals about the change building up in President Lane.
I never imagined that the daily news would be so much like what I wrote in this passage. This scene is based on background research and my own imagination about what I learned about the President’s Daily Brief (which I must confess I called the “President’s Daily Briefing,” although I see that it is more correct to call it the “Brief,” just like people used to call a certain organization “the CIA,” but now the real slicks call it just plain “CIA,” dropping the “the.” Go figure.)
There are number of public sources from which anyone can learn about the PDB and the high priestly ritual that attends it. (Come to think of it, this subject would make a great episode of The Simpsons!)
At the easiest and quickest but most superficial level one can read the news, such as this article by Charlie Savage in The New York Times of December 12, 2016, “What Is the President’s Daily Brief?”
Or, you can go to school at the Central Intelligence Agency.
No, not literally, silly (except for some of you).
The CIA website hosts the “Center for the Study of Intelligence,” and the Center has posted many interesting and scholarly documents about how the world of intelligence either works or ought to work. Among them are a series called “Studies in Intelligence.”
The mission of Studies in Intelligence is to stimulate within the Intelligence Community the constructive discussion of important issues of the day, to expand knowledge of lessons learned from past experiences, to increase understanding of the history of the profession, and to provide readers with considered reviews of public literature concerning intelligence.
Among the posted documents is the PDF form of a book by John Helgerson, Getting to Know the President, Second Edition: Intelligence Briefings of Presidential Candidates, 1952–2004.
Even though the book is mostly about the history of briefings for candidates, it has a ton of fascinating information that applies just as well to the briefing of Presidents in office. Here are two excerpts that give the flavor of how three Presidents approached the CIA’s briefing:
Nixon and Ford
During his eight years as vice president in the 1950s, Richard Nixon had had broad exposure to the activities of the civilian US Intelligence Community. He was aware CIA had briefed the presidential candidates in every election since 1952 and undoubtedly harbored mixed feelings about the way the process had worked in 1960, when his narrow defeat by John Kennedy might well have hinged on the candidates’ different perceptions of the intelligence process. This familiarity with the IC’s capabilities and practices made him willing, at the outset of his new campaign for the presidency in 1968, to accept briefings from CIA Director Richard Helms. It also led him to decline to receive routine briefings from lower level officers, opening the way for Henry Kissinger, his national security advisor, to play a central and expanding role. (p. 61)
Ford accepted a suggestion that the PDB be brought to him directly, acknowledging that this would be the most secure way to receive the sensitive document. He specified that he would like to see it early each morning, prefer- ably as his first appointment. Beginning 1 July that became the regular rou- tine, one that was altered only occasionally by such diversions as a vice- presidential breakfast with the president or a speaking engagement out of town. On a few occasions Ford was seen at his Alexandria home before he flew off to keep such an engagement. Always a gracious host, he brewed and served instant coffee.
Ford came to the vice-presidency an informed consumer of the products of the Intelligence Community. He notes that he “had become familiar with CIA first as a member of the Intelligence subcommittee on Appropriations; later in other roles, including Minority Leader. I knew Colby from my days in Congress.” This familiarity, particularly with Colby personally, was to provide the Agency at least a temporary buffer in some difficult times to come. (p. 77)
In late June 1976, Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter distinguished himself in the eyes of CIA officials by becoming the first presidential hopeful to request intelligence briefings even before receiving his party’s nomination. Carter’s request, which was directed to President Ford, prompted discussions involving the president, CIA Director George Bush, and National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft about who should provide such briefings and when they should be made available to the candidate. (p. 87)
Another source is a more recent book by David Priess, The President’s Book of Secrets: The Untold Story of Intelligence Briefings to America’s Presidents from Kennedy to Obama. Written by a former CIA officer and State Department desk officer, it has the benefit of real first hand experience, if written in a sort of cheer-leading style. Don’t expect any gossip.
A source of endlessly annoying (to me) and usually partisan ankle-biting is the blame game about the PDB and other high-level briefings—what was in them and should the person being briefed have “caught” that item? In my humble opinion, most of the people who raise this issue know little about the real-world process of gathering and assessing intelligence, and especially the difference between knowing an adversary’s capability and his intentions.
I call these people “ball-scratchers,” like the guy at the end of the bar who knows just about everything and has an opinion on it that he is happy to share while relieving his STD itch.
If you feel compelled to either scratch yours or tell one of them to STFU, here is a place to start. The National Security Archive at GWU has a post on the famous or infamous briefing about Osama bin Laden’s intention to attack the United States. It includes a link to a declassified version of the August 6, 2001 PDB. Scratch away at this!
Finally, there is this short video which features clips of actual professionals from the intelligence community who know what they are talking about (as opposed to some meme generator at a political boiler room or a Hill “staffer.”)