Sometime after World War II, it became increasingly apparent that intelligence gathered by a growing number of US federal agencies needed to be part of the day to day policy decision making practice of the President. As the intelligence agencies themselves evolved (from the OSS to the CIA, in one lineage, for example) the idea of a Director of Central Intelligence, or later, Director of National Intelligence, would create an interface between all the agencies and the President also evolved.
I’ve been reading The President’s Book of Secrets: The Untold Story of Intelligence Briefings to America’s Presidents by David Priess. I think I got turned on to the book because I saw the author on MSNBC and it sounded interesting. And it is. The book chronicles the early development and long term evolution of what we now know of as the President’s Daily Brief.
Donald Trump isn’t the first president to require a very brief look at complex and extensive intelligence. For Kennedy, it was a matter of time. He was highly energetic, and easily distracted because of his keen interests in all the things around him. He needed a briefing document that would help the intelligence community pin the president down and put the important stuff in his head. Early efforts were less than successful, but in a reasonable amount of time, they invented a “checklist” of key bits of intelligence, with backup information appended, and Kennedy would carry it around with him and ultimately devour it. Key other personnel also had their copies of the Top Secret document, so there was some common baseline.
When LBJ ascended to office, shockingly, he had no idea that this checklist existed, since Kennedy kept LBJ out of all the loops a veep in a more friendly relationship with POTUS would be in. Also shockingly, except for those of you who already know how quirky our 36th president was, it was not so easy to get that stuff into LBJ’s head. He didn’t like reading, and was slow at it. He was easily distracted, and he had priorities that were not necessarily in line with what one might have hoped for a person in his job.
And that’s all I know because that’s how far I am in the book. But, I’m thinking a lot of interesting stuff happens after LBJ, right up to recent times.
The reason I mention any of this now is this report from WaPo, just out:
For much of the past year, President Trump has declined to participate in a practice followed by the past seven of his predecessors: He rarely if ever reads the President’s Daily Brief, a document that lays out the most pressing information collected by U.S. intelligence agencies from hot spots around the world.
Trump has opted to rely on an oral briefing of select intelligence issues in the Oval Office rather than getting the full written document delivered to review separately each day, according to three people familiar with his briefings.
Reading the traditionally dense intelligence book is not Trump’s preferred “style of learning,” according to a person with knowledge of the situation.
There is actually a bit of iffy, false-balancing reporting right there (and elsewhere in the piece), with the term “traditionally dense intelligence book.” That is exactly what the PDB is NOT. Trump isn’t the first president with reading difficulties or a short attention span to be served by the intelligence community. It appears that the US intelligence community has been producing tailor made non-dense bullet-point-esque briefing documents since 1962, and doing it very well.
The problem here is not that the document is dense. The problem is that the President is dense. And functionally illiterate.
The same article has several quotes from people on the intelligence team explaining how Trump is fully engaged and excellent. They need to say these things to preserve the Republican for enemies foreign, I’m sure. And their jobs. Other experts who are not beholden provide a different story.
Several intelligence experts said that the president’s aversion to diving deeper into written intelligence details … makes both him and the country more vulnerable.
Leon Panetta … said Trump could miss important context and nuance if he is relying solely on an oral briefing. The arrangement also increases pressure on the president’s national security team, which cannot entirely replace a well-informed commander in chief…
“Something will be missed … If for some reason his instincts on what should be done are not backed up by the intelligence because he hasn’t taken the time to read that intel, it increases the risk that he will make a mistake.”
Anyway, The President’s Book of Secrets is a fun book if you are into that sort of thing. It was published in 2016. I hope to see a second edition.
I hope we all get to see a second edition (if you get my drift)!