A Conversation with Dr. David Priess


By MEGHAN BODETTE || September 16, 2016

The Global Conversations project is a Popular Discourse initiative to bring together voices from various countries, backgrounds, and areas of expertise to discuss issues that matter. This week, we are fortunate enough to bring you a conversation with Dr. David Priess, a former CIA officer during the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations.  Dr. Priess is also the author of The President’s Book of Secrets: The Untold Story of Daily Intelligence Briefings to America’s Presidents from Kennedy to Obama. The book lays out the history of the President’s daily intelligence brief through interviews with former Presidents, Vice Presidents, CIA directors, national security advisers, secretaries of state and defense, and other relevant personnel.

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Dr. David Priess

Popular Discourse: Your book, The President’s Book of Secrets, tells the story of the President’s daily intelligence brief. What fact or anecdote in the book do you find most interesting?

David Priess: While some serious documentary research went into this book, the interviews with former president and vice presidents and others were most revealing.

I expected to find plenty of examples of presidents and other top officials getting real insight from their daily book of secrets–things that helped them make some of the toughest national security decisions this country has faced. And those examples showed up, for sure.

But you asked for the most interesting anecdotes, and most of those had to do with less serious moments. Two stand out.

First, when George H.W. Bush was president. You have to remember–he’d been CIA director, he’d been vice president for eight years … so he was no stranger to intelligence. Maybe that’s why he was so comfortable with his daily intelligence briefers, willing to have not only no-kidding serious conversation with them about the highly classified information in the PDB but also some fun moments. Like the time his CIA briefer conveyed the analysts’ assessment that the incumbent would win an election in Nicaragua. President Bush added it up differently, and he offered a wager to the CIA briefer that the analysis was wrong. It was–the challenger won, as Bush predicted–and the briefer brought an ice cream cone to the Oval Office to pay up.

Second, when Bill Clinton was president. He was surprised on his 50th birthday to open up his PDB and start reading about crisis after crisis around the world, all caused by things that he had said and done in the preceding days and weeks. It took him a few articles in the book before he realized they were pulling his leg, having a little fun with him.

I like those examples because they show that this very serious business of providing classified intelligence analysis to the president remains a very personal process, with real personalities and real human moments.

PD: How has the intelligence community adapted to technological and political changes since the administrations in which you served? Has it adapted well?

DP: Much has been written elsewhere about the expanded flow of information to analysts, especially in the realm of social media. I’ll focus instead on a narrower topic: the delivery of daily intelligence analysis to top customers.

Between administrations, and within each one, the intelligence community adapts to the needs of its customers and to the personality of its First Customer, the president of the United States. These adjustments have traditionally succeeded when built on a foundation of solid communication between intelligence officers and the recipients of their products. Absent a robust relationship, those changes become guesswork.

The biggest change with the President’s Daily Brief itself involves the medium of delivery. For decades–since the CIA started producing it for Lyndon Johnson in 1964–the PDB has been page after page of Top Secret intelligence assessments printed in a book. The format of that book has changed, but it’s been ink on paper.

But not anymore. President Obama gets his PDB, now from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, on an iPad. The PDB still contains analysis of various international issues based on all-source intelligence, but the new format allows for variations like embedded multimedia presentations that can enhance impact.

PD: What, in your analysis, is the best way of delivering daily intelligence to the president and other top policymakers?

DP: There may not be one best way. We have to remember–no one gets to the presidency or another top-level office without figuring out what learning style works best for him or her. And these folks have no shortage of advisers to help them get the most out of their time. The preferences of each president or other senior officer should drive how he or she receives daily intelligence analysis.

That said, even as an avid reader myself, I find it hard to see how the full benefit of daily intelligence can be captured without in-person briefings. A president or other senior official forgoing such briefings increases the chances that a senior adviser who is not intimately familiar with the nuances of intelligence will skew the information–deliberately or inadvertently–or otherwise prevent an objective assessment of the facts on the ground from reaching that official. Any risks arising from the direct contact between intelligence officers and senior customers can be mitigated.

An in-person briefing has a huge upside. It allows the customer to discuss with a trained intelligence officer issues regarding the sources behind the daily assessments, alternative points of view, and implications of the judgments on the printed page. A deeper understanding results. Plus, it gives the intelligence community a much better sense of the customer’s needs and challenges, which helps in the development of future products.

 


Special thanks to Dr. Priess, who was open to providing meaningful commentary to a new, growing media journalism project run by young college students. We are indebted to the time he devoted to helping us out. 

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