On Aug. 6, 2001, the third day of his August vacation in Texas, President George W. Bush welcomed two visitors into the living room of his ranch house.
Steve Biegun, the executive secretary of the National Security Council, was filling in for National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice. Michael Morell was a CIA analyst assigned to brief Bush daily on intelligence developments. He handed Bush the President’s Daily Brief, the most highly classified document produced in the U.S. government.
The president paused when he reached an article titled “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.” Morell gave him background on the piece, Bush read it, and they moved to the next page. “I did not treat it as a ‘hair on fire’ or action-forcing piece,” Morell wrote in 2015, “and the president did not read it that way either.”
The article was the 36th in 2001’s PDBs about either the Saudi terrorist or al-Qaida. From Aug. 31 to Sept. 10, the PDB made no mention of impending terrorist attacks on America soil. Nor did Morell provide any warning when he briefed Bush in Sarasota, Fla., on the morning of Sept. 11.
This is just one anecdote explored in former CIA analyst and PDB briefer David Priess’ “The President’s Book of Secrets: The Untold Story of Intelligence Briefings to America’s Presidents From Kennedy to Obama,” a new book about intelligence support to modern presidents. The heart of the book is the history of the PDB, which debuted in 1964. Priess has help from reflections from all living former presidents, vice presidents, secretaries of state and defense, 11 former national security advisors, nearly all former CIA directors and dozens of White House and CIA staffers.
Priess offers an objective narrative, not including any of his own experiences to help maintain a balanced perspective. He treats predictive failures by the PDB – such as the pre-9/11 reports – the same as the successes. This helps the reader understand that the PDB is one of the few constants in a city driven by change, usually every four or eight years. And that has helped the PDB offer far more correct predictions and valuable assessments than tragic failures.
The newly created CIA began sending a Daily Summary to President Harry Truman in 1947 and converted it to the Current Intelligence Bulletin in 1951. President Dwight Eisenhower read a similar daily product, the Central Intelligence Bulletin, which featured a section in 1958 labeled “Daily Brief.” But the election of President John F. Kennedy in 1960 forced considerable changes to CIA’s routine.
The 1961 Bay of Pigs disaster forced Kennedy to revamp how intelligence and diplomatic developments reached the White House. He created the Situation Room to ensure State Department, Pentagon and intelligence reports reached the West Wing in a timely fashion.
CIA responded to Kennedy’s voracious appetite for information, especially written – he could read much faster than aides could talk – with a new product: The President’s Intelligence Checklist, or PICL. Insiders called it the “pickle.” Kennedy read it at various times of the day and valued the short, punchy text.
President Lyndon B. Johnson was slow to adapt to the Checklist and showed irregular interest in daily intelligence updates. The CIA changed its product and introduced the PDB in December 1964 which the president warmed to. The PDB correctly predicted the 1967 Arab-Israeli Six-Day War and suggested it would last only a week.
President Richard Nixon was CIA’s most difficult consumer. National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger acted as a conduit for the PDB and folded its contents into his larger daily brief to Nixon. Nixon distrusted the CIA, which he viewed as dominated by Ivy League liberals. But in contrast to 1967, the PDB failed to forecast the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
With little intelligence experience, President Gerald Ford elected to have a CIA briefer, Dave Peterson, present the PDB to him early every morning. Peterson walked Ford through the articles, answered questions and provided feedback to the PDB staff.
President Ronald Reagan, despite reports of his inattention to details, was an avid reader of the PDB. The Situation Room staff placed the document in a red leather folder, along with the Sit Room’s daily summary and the State Department report. Reagan’s national security advisor gave the folder to Reagan at a set time every morning.
George H. W. Bush, a former CIA director, proved to be the most active and interested Oval Office consumer of the PDB, citing that reading it was “one of his favorite times of the day.”
Bush’s enthusiasm and warm demeanor allowed the CIA to attempt a bit of humor in the spring of 1989. CIA director William Webster and the PDB briefer entered the Oval Office with a woman, ostensibly a CIA courier. She was really Joanna Goeser, who had created a highly classified disguise system for use by CIA case officers overseas, and was wearing one. Bush picked up on the gambit, but when Webster had Goeser remove the disguise, everyone else on the room was quite startled. “She did it very well,” Webster said later. “The president got a big kick out of it.”
President Bill Clinton’s early disinterest in intelligence matters frustrated his first director of central intelligence, James Woolsey. When a pilot crashed a small plane on the White House South Lawn in 1994, Washington insiders claimed it was Woolsey trying to get an appointment with the president. Clinton’s interest in the PDB varied widely, and his famous inability to stay on his daily schedule inhibited regular meetings with his CIA briefer. He most often read the document by himself and found intelligence on foreign leaders to be helpful. Clinton fell for a couple bogus PDB editions on April Fools’ Day, and had a good laugh.
“They tried to convince me the world had gone to hell in a handbasket just in twenty-four hours,” Clinton told Priess, “And it was all my fault!”
George W. Bush proved to be just as energetic as his father in receiving the PDB and briefer. He posed probing questions, asked for more details and relished deep dives into complex intelligence, especially in extended weekly sessions he called Terrorism Tuesdays. After 9/11, CIA added a new PDB supplement called the Threat Matrix that Bush read eagerly. It was a joint FBI-CIA spreadsheet that earlier might have connected some dots on al-Qaida’s plans before September 2001.
Despite Bush’s enthusiasm, the PDB process during his administration was seriously disrupted by the 9/11 Commission investigation, as well as examinations of the intelligence surrounding the nonexistent Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.
President Barack Obama has read the PDB daily, but he has met with his briefer less regularly. Ever the tech-savvy president, Obama first read the PDB on an iPad on Jan. 31, 2012, and the White House released an image of the milestone. CIA and the director of national intelligence dropped the paper PDB and switched to a digital version in 2014.
The author has written an authoritative yet easily read book about an important part of the president’s daily routine. He has successfully enlivened the work with myriad first-person accounts from former presidents down to the folks who have written the PDB articles. A CIA review of the manuscript ensured that classified material was not included, but Priess gives the reader plenty of substance to go with details of the process.
As a result, “The President’s Book of Secrets” offers a previously untold story about one of those closely guarded, “eyes-only” facets of the intelligence world.
The President’s Book of Secrets
Author: David Priess (PublicAffairs, 384 pages, $29.95)