Briefing the Leader of the Free World

Review: David Priess, 'The President’s Book of Secrets'

President Lyndon Johnson and Lady Bird Johnson pose with grandchild and the President's Daily Briefing /
March 26, 2016

The emergence of the United States as a global superpower after World War II brought with it an unprecedented demand during the Cold War for accurate, well-informed and timely intelligence for the president and senior officials. That demand has only increased in an age of terrorism and renewed strategic challenges from Russia and China.

Competition for the president’s attention is keen. Washington is a city of think tanks and quality universities that produce volumes of material on virtually all aspects of U.S. foreign policy. One product that stands out for its uniqueness and value to policymakers is the President’s Daily Brief, known in the business as the PDB, produced primarily by the Central Intelligence Agency.

David Priess, a former CIA officer, has lifted the veil on the process and substance of creating the PDB in his readable and well-researched volume, The President’s Book of Secrets.

America’s Founding Fathers, including Presidents Washington, Jefferson, and Adams, were sufficiently exposed to foreign intrigues of the day to appreciate whatever information they could receive, though it often came sporadically through informal channels.

It was not until 1941 when Franklin Roosevelt directed creation of the first U.S. intelligence service, the Office of Strategic Services, that the United States formally established a full-time intelligence service.

While the OSS would evolve into the Central Intelligence Agency as a result of the 1947 National Security Act, the first generation of intelligence analysts already were sending daily reports to the Oval Office.

As Priess notes, many early reports (and some more recent reports), suffered from various limitations. The agency received "little feedback from the first presidents" on the utility of the daily brief. More importantly, briefs sometimes contained analysis that "was completely, disastrously and embarrassingly wrong." In the case of Henry Kissinger’s secret diplomacy for Richard Nixon, the briefs were written with little understanding of U.S. policy initiatives.

Over time, the daily briefing material improved in quality but still was not embraced by all presidents. Jimmy Carter refused to receive a morning briefing from the CIA, relying instead on Zbigniew Brzezinski, his national security adviser, to convey the agency’s intelligence findings. Bill Clinton similarly received the daily briefing from his national security adviser as opposed to agency personnel.

By contrast and somewhat ironically, Ronald Reagan, popularly regarded as lacking intellectual curiosity, is described as a "serious reader going over each item deliberately and with considerable attention."

George W. Bush, the son of a former CIA director, also was an astute consumer of the PDB. He often would spend considerable time grilling his briefers, claiming he learned more "by trying to get beneath the words … by understanding the nuance of some of the information that I had been given."

Anecdotes like those relayed above are sprinkled liberally throughout the pages of Priess’s book, providing insights not only into modern American presidents and their approaches to working with intelligence products but also the attitudes of senior officials to the products. Those insights are an interesting addition to the historical record on U.S. foreign policy.

Priess is candid in his acknowledgment of both the strengths and weaknesses of the PDB process. In the main, what his work lacks is an informed discussion of whether the PDB and companion products such as the more widely-distributed National Intelligence Daily have been instrumental in shaping U.S. policy. In many cases and for many reasons the answer is no.

Having served as a CIA analyst before joining Bill Clinton’s National Security Council staff, this reviewer came to appreciate in a way that is not always understood at the CIA’s wooded campus in northern Virginia that policy decisions often are the product of many elements and considerations. As a result, in many instances intelligence insights made only minor contributions to major policy decisions.

Perhaps that is the dirty little secret Priess can’t bring himself to acknowledge. For all the talent and energy expended over decades by many at the CIA and other agencies, the PDB, while surely valuable, is not necessarily more influential than its less glamorous competitors.