Book Review: The President’s Book of Secrets
The Untold Story of Intelligence Briefings
to America’s Presidents
from Kennedy to Obama
by David Priess
Public Affairs, 2016
Author David Priess served as an intelligence officer in the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, and in that capacity he often handled directly the subject of his new book, The President’s Book of Secrets (with its briefing-length subtitle, “The Untold Story of Intelligence Briefings to America’s Presidents from Kennedy to Obama”), so he’s in an excellent position to know the sharp limitations any such book must endure. The actual contents of these Presidential Daily Briefings are obviously intensely classified – indeed, often labeled “For the President’s Eyes Only” – and will remain so until long after both Priess and his readers have exited stage left. The true “untold story” of those PDBs will go right on being untold until some day at the distant end of the century; Priess must content himself with telling the untold story around the untold story of presidential intelligence briefings. This is why he describes his book as “a little like the biography of a recluse.”
He can’t tell his readers what was in any of the PDBs he presented, but he very exuberantly tells the story of the history of such documents, beginning when CIA analyst Dick Lehman began crafting the “President’s Intelligence Checklist” for President Kennedy. “Writing seemed to reside in his genes,” Priess writes about Lehman (a line that would have made its subject corkscrew with embarrassment). “His father, Edwin, had crafted poetry, editing a published anthology that included some of his own works., and his grandmother Margaret had a penchant for humorous doggerel.”
The President’s Book of Secrets spends most of its space telling the stories of the many and varied ways presidents regarded this “daily newspaper” written just for them. As Priess points out, reactions spanned a wide spectrum:
From its birth in late 1964 during Lyndon Johnson’s administration, the President’s Daily Brief has seen its format, highly classified content, and mode of delivery tailed to the current commander in chief. The PDB’s first three recipients alone demonstrated great variety in how they received it: Lyndon Johnson had his book delivered at night for his bedtime reading, Richard Nixon’s legal-brief-styled PDB was screened the night before by national security advisor Henry Kissinger, and Gerald Ford during his first year as president had a working-level CIA officer brief him personally on it in the Oval Office. More recently, Barack Obama has received his PDB on an iPad.
In addition to being the unofficial historian of his old job, Priess is also a natural at picking out humanizing gems from the vast array of records he’s consulted. He tells us, for instance, that on the eve of Nicaragua’s inaugural election in 1990, President George H. W. Bush read his analyst’s prediction of the likely outcome and said “I’ll bet you an ice cream cone that you’re wrong.” (The analyst was, and he paid up). We’re told that during President Clinton’s two terms, the PDB was often the special province of his running mate and vice president Al Gore, who had a charming encounter with the daughter of his main briefer Denny Watson:
During his eight years as vice president, Gore would endure political opponents and pundits calling him many things. But few of the epithets hurled a him compared to the one from his PDF briefer’s daughter. Watson took her to meet the vice president one day, forgetting how a kindergartner who had just discovered knock-knock jokes jumps at any opportunity to apply that knowledge.
“Who’s there?” Gore kindly replied.
“You’re a banana head!”
Of course, there’s one particular cloud that inevitably hangs over any book on presidential intelligence briefings, since on August 6, 2001 one such briefing memo had the title “Bin Laden Determined To Strike in US” – and yet nothing all was done to stop just that from happening less than a month later. There isn’t much that Priess can do to soften the blow here; what he’s describing must either be complete institutional incompetence or else executive stupidity of the lowest order. The account here is carefully, perhaps too carefully, balanced:
During the summer of 2001, [CIA director] George Tenet was telling everyone who would listen that “the system was blinking red.” Analysts in he CIA’s CTC, mostly Agency officers but including representatives from the wider intelligence community, had been warning in intelligence publications throughout the year that the al Qaida terrorist network seemed primed for a major attack, with titles like “Bin Ladin Threats Are Real.” From January 20 to September 10, more than forty pieces in the PDB alone related to Bin Ladin. In response to such analysis, the president several times asked Morell in their daily PDB sessions about the prospects for an attack in the United States itself.
The final assertion there – that the president “several times” asked his CIA briefer Michael Morell about the prospects of an imminent al Qaida attack on American soil – is taken from the 9/11 Commission Report, every word of which was vetted by the White House prior to publication. For the actual minutes and recordings of the President’s briefings during those months, readers will have to wait 75 years – at which point they’ll either hear several requests for details about terrorist attacks, or they’ll hear some variation of, “Aw c’mon Mikey – enougha this ‘al Keeda’ crap! You’re boring me!” Long-odds betting can commence any time.