The President’s Book of Secrets

Title:                 The President’s Book of Secrets

Author:            David Priess

Priess, David (2016). The President’s Book of Secrets: The Untold Story of Intelligence Briefings to America’s Presidents from Kennedy to Obama. New York : PublicAffairs

LCCN:             2015041833

JK468.I6 P745 2016


Date Posted:                        June 13, 2016

Reviewed by Joseph C. Goulden[1]

Given the parlous condition of the print media, perhaps it is no surprise that what has been called “the nation’s most exclusive publication” is no longer available in a paper-and-ink format.

Credit–or blame, if you prefer–President Barack Obama for the demise of the print version of the CIA’s “President’s Daily Brief,” or PDB, a taut summary of vital intelligence which CIA officers have used to brief the chief executive six days a week since the John Kennedy years. Obama opted to have the intelligence presented to him via his iPad. The final hard-copy edition was published February 15, 2014, about ten months shy of its fiftieth anniversary.

The official explanation given by Michael Morell, formerly CIA’s deputy director, was that Obama “absorbs information best by reading, and he did so on his own, not with others in the room, not at the daily intelligence briefing.” Perhaps the chosen mode was of no import, given that a report issued in September 2012 found that Obama attended his intelligence briefings on only 43.8 percent of his days in office.

David Priess, a CIA officer who served as a daily intelligence briefer during the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, has written a thoroughly engaging account of how “The Book,” as it is known in Agency parlance, came into existence, and how presidents used (or ignored) it over the years.

The PDB originated with less-formal briefing papers prepared for Presidents Truman and Eisenhower that drew heavily upon excerpts from lengthy reports, supplemented by staff presentations. Kennedy disliked taking the time for personal briefings, preferring written presentations he could consume in half an hour or less. (A speed-reader, JFK claimed he could read 1,200 words a minute.) Handed a longish document, he would comment, “Do I have to read it all?” Briefers feared that he would “get up and walk out.”

The estimates crafted for Kennedy were first known as the President’s Intelligence Checklist, or PICL,—giving the producing office the designation as “the pickle factory.” But thus was born the PDB, which Priess writes “contains the most sensitive intelligence reporting and analysis in the world.” Included are reports from CIA spies, listening posts of the National Security Agency and space photos from the National Reconnaissance Office.

Presidents paid varying degrees of attention to the brief. For instance, CIA impressed President Lyndon Johnson in 1967 by predicting the outbreak of the Six Day War—and that Israel would prevail within seven days. (Victory required six days).

President Nixon, who denounced CIA as being “full of left-wing liberals who hate me,” shunned the PDB. CIA began providing him the reports before his inauguration. Nixon’s staff eventually returned a stack of unopened envelopes containing 2,179 pages of unread reports. Henry Kissinger insisted on vetting the brief before it went to Nixon.

President George W. Bush supplemented his reading by asking tough follow-up questions of his briefers. He was impressed when he received candid responses, “I don’t know the answer; let me get it for you.” As he commented to Priess, “They played it absolutely straight.”

President Bill Clinton annoyed briefers by appearing late—if he appeared at all—for scheduled briefings. He would often pop his head out of the Oval Office and say to an underling, “Would you take the briefing?” James Woolsey, the CIA director, saw Clinton one-on-one only once, before his nomination, and two-on-two only twice. He stopped going to the White House.

Even more disturbing was Clinton’s insistence on bringing public relations people into the PDB briefings, despite their lack of clearances for the sensitive material being discussed. Press aides George Stephanopoulos and Dee Dee Myers, sitting at the back of the room, would talk about “who would background The Washington Post and the New York Times, and who would go on the Sunday talk shows.”

Briefers could not resist playing a joke on Clinton. On his fiftieth birthday, the PDB listed item after item of how things he had said and done had sparked criticism around the world. As Clinton commented to Priess, “They tried to convince me the world had gone to hell in a handbasket just in twenty-four hours —and it was all my fault! I was totally, completely blindsided, I don’t remember how long I read it before I figured out they were pulling my leg!”

Eventually, CIA officers would discover, Clinton’s dissemination list for the PDB “included dozens of people,” even though it was intended for the president and his closest national security advisers. President George W. Bush narrowed the list to six people, including the secretaries of state and defense.

Priess records only one instance in which a CIA director tried to use the PDB for political purposes. Porter Goss (R:FL) chaired the House Intelligence Committee prior to becoming director of CIA. One of his first directives to the staff ordered that they all “support the administration and its policies”—a policy that would have destroyed the Agency’s objectivity. Protests made Goss retreat, and quickly.

The PDB’s limited circulation, and classification, means that the public—and even historians—has little idea of the reliability of the intelligence being given the president. But William Gates, a longtime Soviet specialist at CIA before becoming director, did note that warnings about “serious trouble ahead” for the Soviet Union began in the fall of 1989—two years before the USSR collapsed.

So, what use does the current president make of The Book? And how accurate is the intelligence handed him? Perhaps history will provide the answers. Priess makes a good—and highly readable—start.

[1] Goulden, Joseph C. in The Intelligencer: Journal of U.S. Intelligence Studies (22, 2, Spring 2016, pp. 1204-105). Joseph C. Goulden’s 1982 book, Korea: The Untold Story of the War, was published in a Chinese-language edition in 2014 by Beijing Xiron Books. He is author of 18 nonfiction books. Goulden is a long-time reviewer of espionage and spy books for The Washington Times, for AFIO’s Intelligencer, for law journals, and other publications. Some of the reviews appeared in prior editons of The Washington Times or The Washington Lawyer (DC Bar Association) and are reprinted by permission of the author. Goulden’s most recent book [as of 2016] is Goulden, Joseph C. (2012). The Dictionary of Espionage: Spyspeak into English. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications.

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