The President’s Book of Secrets | David Priess

Summary of: The President’s Book of Secrets: The Untold Story of Intelligence Briefings to America’s Presidents from Kennedy to Obama
By: David Priess


In ‘The President’s Book of Secrets: The Untold Story of Intelligence Briefings to America’s Presidents from Kennedy to Obama,’ David Priess offers a fascinating inside look at the President’s Daily Brief (PDB), a crucial intelligence document tailored for the highest office. The book explores the birth of the PDB during President John F. Kennedy’s administration, how it has evolved over time, and its role in shaping major events and decisions in American history. From presidents grappling with daily security threats to the lessons learned and challenges presented by monumental events such as the Cuban missile crisis, the PDB has remained a critical tool for each subsequent administration.

The Birth of the Presidential Brief

Learn about the origins of the President’s Daily Brief (PDB) and how it revolutionized the exchange of intelligence information between the president and the intelligence analysis community.

In 1961, the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) sponsored a failed invasion of Cuba by a paramilitary army that led President John F. Kennedy to demand better daily intelligence reports. This demand gave rise to the President’s Daily Brief (PDB). The CIA published the first iteration of the PDB, known as the President’s Intelligence Checklist, on June 17, 1961. Compared to previous intelligence reports, the checklist was written in a more conversational language, which generated unprecedented interaction between the president and the intelligence community.

The PDB officially debuted on December 1, 1964, and quickly caught the attention of President Lyndon Johnson. The PDB was distributed to only a select group of authorized readers, but this allowed the inclusion of sensitive intelligence sources. During the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962, Kennedy relied heavily on other sources for information because the checklist did not mention the type and purpose of the Soviet arms shipments to Cuba.

The President’s Daily Brief revolutionized the exchange of intelligence information between the president and the intelligence analysis community. Its birth was a result of the national security crisis and the need for better daily intelligence reporting.

The President’s Daily Brief

Under President Lyndon Johnson, the Office of Current Intelligence (OCI) stopped producing the checklist and a biweekly intelligence review. The CIA then started producing the President’s Daily Brief (PDB), which Johnson became an avid consumer of. Despite its success, the PDB did fail to warn Johnson of the Tet Offensive that happened in Vietnam.

Nixon’s Grudge Against the CIA

Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger had long-standing resentment towards the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), restricting their access to sensitive policy deliberations and valuing unfiltered intelligence over CIA analyses. When the CIA director William Colby created a CIA report, the National Intelligence Daily (NID), Nixon and Kissinger intended to keep it secret while limiting distribution of the President’s Daily Briefing (PDB) to only a select few. Their grudge towards the CIA led to several inaccuracies, with the analysis in the October 6, 1973, issue of the PDB being wrong about Egypt and Syria’s military intentions towards Israel. Nixon’s resentment towards the CIA stems from the election campaign of 1960, where he believed that the CIA supported Kennedy’s claim of a “missile gap” that ultimately cost him the election.

Presidential Intelligence Briefings

The US President’s access to intelligence has evolved over time. President Ford preferred to review the Presidential Daily Briefing (PDB) alone, while Carter limited its distribution and requested a simpler format with wider margins for note-taking. National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger had a particularly dominant role in the PDB process, while George HW Bush, as CIA Director, requested direct access to the President. These insights suggest that the PDB is a flexible tool that adapts to the preferences and working style of different US Presidents.

Presidential Daily Briefings and National Security Decisions

The book reveals the different approaches of US presidents to Presidential Daily Briefings (PDB) and their implications on national security decisions. While Reagan was content with the PDB format and generally delegated security decisions, Colin Powell was surprised at this. The book also shows how the CIA could have done better in predicting the Soviet Union’s downfall if they had better predictive models of the Soviet economy. William Webster, who became the CIA director during the Soviet Union’s collapse, had little idea that the USSR had any weaknesses and was therefore ill-prepared.

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