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Washington, D.C.

Thursday, March 17, 2016


Featured Speaker:


Author, “The President’s Book of Secrets”; Former U.S. Intelligence Officer



Senior Fellow and Director, The Intelligence Project, The Brookings Institution *****


706 Duke Street, Suite 100 Alexandria, VA 22314 Phone (703) 519-7180 Fax (703) 519-7190 2 PDB-2016/03/17


MR. RIEDEL: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to The Brookings Institution and to another in our series of programs in the Brookings Intelligence Project. Today we’re talking about one of the most interesting books that I have ever read about the U.S. intelligence community. I’ll tell you why in a minute, but first let me ask you if you would mute all of these things, so we don’t have those cute little interludes where your phone goes off.

And second, let me introduce you to David Priess. He’s the author of this book. David served in the CIA in a variety of tasks, including in his last incarnation as a PDB briefer. We’ll be talking about that a lot this afternoon. He’s a graduate of Duke University. And this is your first book?


MR. RIEDEL: This was his first book. You’re off to a great start.

“The President’s Book of Secrets” is a book about how the President’s Daily Brief has been developed over the years since the Kennedy administration. It is a book about the most exclusive newspaper in the entire world and the most highly classified newspaper in the entire world. But it’s more than just a book about the PDB itself. It’s really a book about what the American intelligence community and the CIA in particular does all day long.

If you go to any library or any bookstore, you’ll find there are a lot of books about the CIA, but almost all of them concentrate on covert actions, from the Bay of Pigs to drones, from successes to failures. Actually more failures than successes, but it’s all about covert actions. It’s not even really all about operations and about the collection of information. It’s all about operations.

–  –  –

the intelligence community do all day is not covert action and not covert operations. It’s about the collection of intelligence information, the synthesis of intelligence information, the assessment of intelligence information, and all, crucially, the actual presentation of that information in a way that’s going to be helpful to policymakers and especially consumer number one, the President of the United States of America. And that’s what this book, in my view, tries to talk about and tells you about.

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font, but how do you tell the president of the United States everything he needs to know about the world and not take up four hours of his morning just reading?

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It’s in the name itself, the President’s Daily Brief, it’s brief. And that makes sense when you think about it. The president of the United States has a schedule that is measured to the minute.

Having anything extraneous in there will not work. It might just turn the PDB, the president’s Daily Brief, into a very expensive paperweight. So there is a premium on concise writing and precise writing.

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about a topic. It’s the distillation of what the President needs to know. It is the President’s book and the people producing the president’s Daily Brief. And before that I tell the story of the President’s Intelligence Checklist, the predecessor that was made for John F. Kennedy, personally for John F. Kennedy, based on his needs and his reading style.

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puts a premium on precision of language. And the amount of wordsmithing that goes into the sentence of two that the President might read on any topic on a given day is completely awesome if you’re into wordsmithing and completely horrifying if you’re not.

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ones. In the research I did for the book some of the declassified PDBs from the 1960s, they would clock in at one or two pages. And there would be items about perhaps a half-dozen different crises around the world, developments that the president might be interested in. And then at times there have been ones

–  –  –

that have been 30 or 40 pages. Now some of that is supplementary material, that is some of the raw intelligence reporting that went into the pieces or some longer papers that might be attached to explain some of the items in there in more depth.

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time the president’s going to look at it, which has been true of some administrations, then the book usually is fairly short and it tees up a conversation that the President would have with the briefer or with senior aides in the room. If it’s something that the President is going to read, perhaps take with him throughout the day or set aside a set time to read, there could be a little more in there because there isn’t as much interruption during the process itself.

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there was a crisis going on. Usually that kind of supplementary intelligence information would be delivered to the president separately outside of the channel of the PDB. The shortest one I found was one page and it was just a couple of quick summaries on world events. They probably realized there was nothing else that deserved the President’s attention that day.

MR. RIEDEL: Now, this is a book classified Top Secret, code word blank-blank-blank-no foreign, all kinds of things. As you tell in the book every book is retrieved and brought back to the CIA at some point. So how do you research a topic that’s classified like that? And more importantly, how do you get it through the review process at the CIA, which as a CIA employee you have to go through?

MR. PRIESS: Right. It was relatively easy, in part because within the intelligence community and within the CIA, which has owned the PDB for much of its history, the President's Daily Brief is treated as the holiest of holies. It is the premier intelligence document. It is a direct channel of communication with the President of the United States on a daily basis, which few other government agencies can have.

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overwhelmingly they treated it as one of many inputs, maybe a special one, one that had pride of place, but it was one of perhaps hundreds of documents that the president would see in a given day. They were perfectly comfortable talking about it. They were perfectly comfortable sharing insights about how the president used the PDB. That’s different than the content of the PDB.

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their personalities, how this book was a window on the history in some cases that has never been told before. But it doesn’t give a lot of information about what’s in the book. If you want to know what President Obama read before Benghazi, we’re not finding it. That’s still classified and no one’s talking about that. And that goes back decades. What I was surprised at is there were some windows into that, that there were some windows that have been declassified about the content of the book itself, not just how the presidents used it.

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goal, so that made it much easier to have the CIA review the material as they do for anyone who has worked for the agency. I found that it went through remarkably clearly because I sourced everything. If you see the book you’ll find there are many, many endnotes. That made the review process easier, but it also made it easier for future historians to look back and say why is it that you say Bill Clinton approached it this way? And you can look at the back and say it’s because Bill Clinton told me. That’s in the endnotes.

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they should. Secrets should not be leaked out in that way. They had a mind towards getting the story that could be told out there and they helped me to do that without revealing any state secrets in the process.

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Kennedy, as you already mentioned, is the first recipient of a daily book, the PICL. I’ve always wondered if that was the origin of the notion of “the pickle factory,” goes back to that.

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president before this. It really started with Harry Truman, a little bit of wartime work with FDR, but it started with Harry Truman. The difference was the daily document that went to Harry Truman was not written and edited in a way to match his personality. It was a compilation of intelligence presented to the

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personality than his predecessor, Dwight Eisenhower. He was unable to sit still for meetings. They could not keep him pinned down for more than a few minutes at a time. He would literally get up and walk out of a meeting if he was not interested. So what did they default to? They decided they would just take every intelligence document they got from CIA, from the State Department, from the Defense Department, and they would just stack it up on his desk and hope that he would read it because he was a voracious reader. But what they found is that stack essentially sat there unread. It was bureaucratically written with classification markings, all the stuff that someone who worked as a journalist, like John Kennedy did, found abhorrent about the U.S. Government.

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want one document that we can take into him every morning that tells him just what he needs to know, but does it without all that gobbledygook, that does it in a fashion that meets his style, conversational language clearly stated. And we want it to be small enough that he can just fold it, put it into his suit pocket, carry it around with him during the day because he’ll just take it out and read it for one minute, something else will come up, he’ll tuck it away.

–  –  –

had been talking about back at the agency when he saw Kennedy come into office, thinking we’re going to have to work differently for this president. They had a prototype ready the next day. The military assistant approved it. The very next day, on a Saturday morning, they gave it to John Kennedy on the diving board of the swimming pool out at their rented estate in Middleburg, Virginia. Kennedy loved it right away and it became the foundation for presidentially focused daily intelligence from that point forward.

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transition. And this is a recurring theme, I think, in the book is how do transitions work and we’ll come to that later on today because we’re getting close to one. Tell us how Johnson now wants his book. He doesn’t want Kennedy’s book.

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(Laughter) Kennedy and Johnson, no love lost between the two. John F. Kennedy gets this President’s Intelligence Checklist focused on him personally. He decides at first it will only come to him, the National Security Advisor, and a couple of others at the White House.

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Secretary of State or the Secretary of Defense and I’m bringing up things, they haven’t seen what I’ve seen. So he allows them to see it six months after its creation.

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National Security Council officers and says this creates a little conundrum here. You’ve got three of the four statutory members of the National Security Council, the President, the Secretary of State, and the Secretary of Defense all seeing this document. There’s this one other guy, the Vice President. Shouldn’t we be delivering it to him? And they gave him three words back: Under no circumstances. (Laughter) Therefore, after that day in Dallas, Vice President Johnson becomes President Johnson.

He comes in, he gets a briefing from the director of Central Intelligence, who presents him for the very first time with the President’s Intelligence Checklist, which he said it was very clear Johnson did not know existed.

Perhaps it’s because of that, perhaps it’s because Johnson, who was no idiot, realized he’d been shut out, he never really took to the checklist. He didn’t seem to like it. So it wasn’t that long, it was December 1964, when the CIA decided we’re going to reformat it, we’re going to give it a different title, we’re going to change a lot about the way it looks, so that his advisors can give him his daily intelligence book and tell him it is truly something that is his own. And that’s when the name President's Daily Brief first came about.

–  –  –

intelligence process. For a while, the director of Central Intelligence, John McCone, did get to see Lyndon Johnson after the assassination. He actually did it with a dash of deception. The very first day of his presidency he got to see Johnson. How did that happen? He had not been regularly seeing John Kennedy. But after the assassination he had his assistant call the White House and say would the new

–  –  –

So McCone got on his calendar right away. But he briefed the checklist as part of the briefing. It wasn’t the center of the briefing alone. There certainly was not a working-level CIA officer doing it, which then developed in later administrations. It really wasn’t until Gerald Ford, which we’ll get to, that we saw a daily briefer focus solely on making sure that this daily document got to the president and had questions answered.

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