Published by The Lawfare Institute
in Cooperation With

PDF version

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


The writings of eminent practitioners of the craft of intelligence analysis—John McLaughlin, Mark Lowenthal, Tom Fingar, and others—all emphasize the centrality of the relationship between analysts and the policy makers they support in assessing whether intelligence has added value in a particular instance. These wise men consistently point out that, even if this concept is embraced by intelligence practitioners, getting that relationship right, or even close to right, can be as hard as getting the intelligence itself right. This is not a new idea. Sherman Kent, for whom CIA’s school for analysts is named, explained in 1949:

There is no phase of the intelligence business that is more important than the proper relationship between intelligence and the people who use its product. Oddly enough, this relationship, which one would expect to establish itself automatically, does not do this. It is established as a result of a great deal of persistent conscious effort, and it is likely to disappear when the effort is relaxed.

Notwithstanding its titillating title, David Priess’s The President’s Book of Secrets: The Untold Story of Intelligence Briefings to America’s Presidents from Kennedy to Obama is made more useful—at least to serious students of the presidency and intelligence—by the fact that it is not merely a collection of anecdotes about “secrets” past presidents were told and how they reacted to them. It is, rather, a single, continuous story of how the intelligence briefing book came to be over time, skillfully supported with examples. To draw from Kent, this is the story of that “persistent conscious effort” to establish a relationship with successive presidents and to tailor a daily intelligence update that would suit the temperament, learning style, and schedule of each chief executive.

If the importance of the intelligence/policymaker relationship is widely recognized, then why is the history of the President’s Daily Briefing (PDB) “untold,” as the book’s sub-title claims? Former Director of Central Intelligence Robert Gates, British historian Christopher Andrew, and many others have written important books on presidents and intelligence. Memoirs and histories treat specific intelligence issues to varying degrees, often as ancillary to the question, “Who knew what, and when?” One notable exception is Getting to Know the President: Intelligence Briefings of Presidential Candidates, by John Helgerson, sponsored and distributed by CIA’s Center for the Study of Intelligence and downloadable from CSI’s website. That work addresses, however, the narrower issue of how intelligence briefings were introduced to the candidates, presidents-elect, and new presidents. These examples notwithstanding, most of the history of U.S. intelligence and its interplay with executive policy decisions has yet to be written. All the more reason for The President’s Book of Secrets to have a place on the bookshelf of every intelligence educator, student, and practitioner.

The reasons for this vacuum, though straightforward, are worthy of brief review because they emphasize not only the value, but also the timeliness of Priess’s book. First, the practice of providing regular intelligence updates to presidents is, in historical terms, quite recent. Declassification rules can impose waiting periods of up to 50 years, so a delay in declassification is quite simply “baked-in” (sporadic successes under the Freedom of Information Act notwithstanding). Though historians understandably bemoan the delay in their access to documents so critical to understanding the context surrounding national security policy decisions, their laments are unlikely to result in much change. This isn’t just blind rule-following by the intelligence community. The PDB synthesizes intelligence from every type of sensitive source and collection method available to the U.S., and cuts across regional and functional boundaries. Any attempt to impose shorter declassification rules for the PDB to benefit presidential historians would simply result in the I.C. conveying the most sensitive information by other means. Historians would still be in the dark, and presidents’ interaction with intelligence would be more complicated and time consuming.

Beyond the sensitivity of the intelligence, however, executive privilege is an important issue in thinking about the PDB. How does one separate the intelligence provided from the privileged policy discussion that it precipitates and informs? From the intelligence community’s perspective, the impulse to enforce this confidentiality doesn’t spring from dogged faithfulness to past presidents, but to that “persistent and conscious effort” to build and maintain a trusting relationship with current and future occupants of “the Oval.” In fact, all requests for access to PDBs by, say, Congressional oversight committees were flatly rejected using the executive privilege argument until, as Priess describes in some depth, the 9/11 Commission’s request to see what the president had seen before the attacks. Despite a vigorous defense citing the importance of not “politicizing” the PDB from Vice President Cheney, White House Council Alberto Gonzales, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and others, the commission was, in the end, provided access to over 100 relevant PDB’s, and two were declassified.

(A note to historians: there’s good news on declassification. Fifty years have passed since the PDB came into existence in roughly its current form, and declassification of PDB’s has now begun in earnest. Last year the CIA, with the full support and encouragement of the Director of National Intelligence and President Obama, released declassified PDB’s from the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, marked by an event at the LBJ Library in Austin. This year, a large percentage of Nixon/Ford-era PDB’s were declassified and released at a similar event in Yorba Linda. The President’s Book of Secrets is an important contribution to the historiography of intelligence in its own right, but it is even more valuable because it serves as a pointer and a primer on the PDB as scholars tackle this new and growing treasure trove of information. You asked for it, now get in the archives and go to work.)

Priess follows a chronological approach, dedicating a chapter to each president (two for President George W. Bush’s administration). He ranges widely and includes topics not directly related to what was being passed to the president—cabinet shake-ups, the personalities of key staffers, the president’s relationship with the DCI and DNI, and his quirks or work habits. It is clear to the reader that these ancillary topics have been included when they provide necessary context for the main narrative—how intelligence support was customized for each president. This also broadens the book’s utility beyond intelligence specialists to include readers interested in how White Houses are run, those studying individual presidents, and others focused on specific crises and policy decisions.

Priess’s telling of the story reveals both extreme idiosyncrasies, such as Johnson working much of the day from his bedroom, and endearing humility, such as the incoming President Ford making instant coffee for his briefer and then, as president, insisting that his staff allocate a chunk of time each day for an oral briefing because he was a better listener than a reader. While the differences in presidents are striking, The President’s Book of Secrets also reveals realities and patterns that transcend individual office holders. For example, the aura surrounding the PDB tends to raise expectations to unrealistic levels. Priess relates the horror for President-elect George W. Bush’s briefer when Bush said, “I’m sure that when I become president you’ll start giving me the good stuff. “Oh sh*t, we’re already giving him the good stuff,” the briefer thought.

Many of the critiques of the PDB given after the fact by senior staff seemed to have sought either clairvoyance about the future or clairvoyance about what the “First Customer” actually needed and wanted. The contradictory nature of guidance on what to include in the Brief may border on the comical to novices, but it is old hat for senior analysts and the PDB staff. “The President is a lawyer. He’s interested in facts, not analysis.” “The president knows the facts, what he needs is analysis and context.” These adjustments must be worked out with each president, and they often struggle to convey clearly their expectations and preferences. Trial and error is a recurring theme in the book.

The President’s Book of Secrets provides many examples of another reality critical to the theme of relationship: all presidents are, and must be, political animals. As such, they tend to see inconvenient information regarding their policy agenda either as insubordination or as potential ammunition for political opponents. This same tendency often applies even more to the president’s inner circle—the chief of staff and national security adviser, for example—who often resent claims on the president’s time and, in some administrations, see the intelligence community as uncontrolled “off-message” voices to be kept at arm’s length.

While Priess couldn’t go into depth on every president and still serve his larger objectives, I was pleased to find the narrative regularly prompting additional questions for study. For example, Priess tells us that the lead article in the second PDB Johnson received as president reported the Vietnamese were telling the French that growing American sentiment for the withdrawal of U.S. forces had caused them to decide to “keep the heat on” to encourage this sentiment in the American people. It was fascinating to me that CIA highlighted the fact that the Vietnamese were seeing U.S. popular support for the war effort as a Clausewitzian “center of gravity” on the first page of the first PDB prepared exclusively for President Johnson in 1963. Johnson apparently found it less fascinating than me, though, as Priess recounts a story about the profane and homespun metaphor President Johnson used to describe how the CIA’s assessments undercut a president’s policy. I’ll paraphrase to say that in Johnson’s telling, CIA was something like a fly in the president’s policy ointment—Vietnam policy in particular.

Johnson’s view of intelligence and the CIA was changed by the ’67 Middle East (Six-Day) War. Johnson was genuinely impressed and grateful to the Agency for its assessment of the likelihood of war between Israel and its neighbors and the outcome if it occurred. The assessment was provided the same day he requested it and, as Priess recounts, related events were also thoroughly covered in PDBs throughout the crisis. Agency analysts conveyed a crisp judgment that war would happen, would happen soon, and that Israel would quickly and decisively prevail—even without U.S. assistance—and that the war would end in a period as short as seven days. The analysts provided cogent evidence to support their judgments. Johnson believed that acting upon this information, or (more accurately) not acting because the intelligence indicated little action was required, contributed significantly to averting a crisis with the Soviet Union, which he desperately hoped to avoid.

Then-DCI Richard Helms’s stock went up measurably as a result. For example, Helms was subsequently invited to the weekly luncheon Johnson held with his Vice President, secretaries of state and defense, and national security adviser. The ’67 experience, combined with what we know about Johnson’s previous attitude on CIA coverage of Vietnam prompts many questions. Did Johnson materially shift in his appreciation for intelligence in 1967? Did an increase in trust in his intelligence apparatus subsequently affect the way Johnson read the intelligence he was receiving on Vietnam? What did that intelligence say? Did this affect Johnson’s approach to the war, and subsequent decision not to seek reelection? Now that relevant PDB material is available, one of the book’s most important contributions is prompting these kinds of questions for further scholarship.

The greatest strength of The President’s Book of Secrets, though, is that it enables readers to compare and contrast presidents, sharpening our understanding of them as individuals in ways perhaps more revealing than even exhaustive treatments of particular incumbents might convey. In one example, Priess shows that a president’s personal history with intelligence (good or bad) could make made a big difference in whether he ever trusted his intelligence briefers. The author recounts President Nixon’s conviction that the Agency had helped Kennedy by not debunking the alleged “missile gap” issue and costing Nixon the election in 1960. The Agency never overcame this or Nixon’s view that the CIA was a bastion of East Coast liberals, who were secretly against him.

To complicate the relationship further, virtually everything the Agency tried to tell the President was filtered through National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger. Nixon’s near complete lack of trust in the intelligence community and lack of receptivity to intelligence stands in stark contrast to the George H.W. Bush presidency. Here, as Preiss points out, the PDB staff had a President who was a former DCI; a National Security Adviser in Brent Scowcroft who was not only a long time consumer of intelligence, but someone who had participated as briefer in a unique intel/policy PDB presentation to President Ford before becoming his National Security Adviser; a Deputy National Security Adviser in Bob Gates who was both a former Deputy DCI and CIA analyst; and a Chairman of the Joint Chiefs who was an avid PDB reader from his time on the NSC.

This openness to intelligence among key members of the George H.W. Bush team was also accompanied, importantly, by a deep understanding of intelligence’s limits in reducing uncertainty—and the crucial difference between “secrets” (that can be uncovered) and “mysteries” (that can only be assessed). Their experience made them open to intelligence, but it also made them informed consumers—analysis was not accepted on blind faith. As in the Johnson case, this reviewer finds himself wondering how differently the Bush 41 team might have fared in their astute management of the challenges associated with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the task of building an international coalition to remove Saddam Hussein’s armies from Kuwait, without this seasoned and constructive relationship with the craft of “all source” intelligence analysis.

The Obama administration unsurprisingly gets the lightest treatment, but Priess raises an important issue in his coverage of the sitting President. Familiarity with the PDB process is now so widespread that leaks about the time the president spends on the briefing, how many days a week he takes it, and other logistical details that were formerly the president’s personal prerogatives can now become political fodder. It would be a great loss if this is the one lesson learned from The President’s Book of Secrets and the 9/11 Commission Report by an incoming administration. Making the PDB a box that must be checked to demonstrate vigilance on national security threatens national security.

The larger message for new presidents in The President’s Book of Secrets is that the ODNI, the Agency and the entire intelligence community exist to serve the president; they know it and embrace it. They welcome tasking. They welcome prioritization. They covet feedback, and will adapt nimbly. Intelligence support is a vital resource available to a U.S. president, but history illustrates that it has not been uniformly welcomed or exploited by our chief executives—yet it needs to be.

J. Paul Pope is Clinical Professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and Senior Fellow of the Intelligence Studies Project at the University of Texas, Austin. He retired from the CIA after multiple foreign tours, service as Chief of Station, and assignments as a Chief, Deputy Chief, and Chief of Ops in Directorate of Operations’ components. As Chief of the Training and Tradecraft Division, he was responsible for DO training, the capture and application of “lessons learned,” and aligning training to emerging technical challenges, hostile environments and mission imperatives. In joint assignments, he served as ADDNI for Partner Engagement and DNI/DCIA Representative to Commander, US Pacific Command and its component commands. Prior to joining the NCS, he served on the National Intelligence Council as an Assistant NIO for the Near East and South Asia and he led an analytic branch in the Directorate of Intelligence.

Subscribe to Lawfare