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Fine Print: Bush Emphasized Daily Intelligence Briefings Too Much, Study Says

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By Walter Pincus
Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Under President George W. Bush, the President's Daily Brief -- the highly classified intelligence paper delivered each morning to the White House -- rose to "an unprecedented level of importance," with negative consequences for the intelligence community, according to a new study by the Brookings Institution.

These included "skewing intelligence production away from deeper research and arms-length analysis" and driving analysts to choose "the latest, attention-grabbing clandestine reports from the field," says the study, released Tuesday, called "The U.S. Intelligence Community and Foreign Policy: Getting Analysis Right."

At times, Bush had analysts who had been working on high-concern issues he read about in the daily brief, or PDB, conduct hour-long "deep dives" on those topics, with top policymakers present. "Not infrequently the briefings and surrounding discussions by key players would produce immediate policy decisions," the study says.

The importance that Bush placed on the PDB caused problems among analysts "who came to see much of their raison d' etre as centered on the PDB product each day," according to the study's primary author, Kenneth Lieberthal, a senior fellow at Brookings and a National Security Council staff member in the Clinton White House.

For the study, Lieberthal interviewed current and former officials in the CIA, the NSC, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and the State and Defense departments. All, he said, "were promised anonymity."

The practice of providing a PDB to accompany the traditional morning intelligence briefing began in 1964 when Lyndon Johnson was in the White House, and presidents have had varying levels of engagement with it.

President Obama, according to the study, "prefers written material and want[s] to read [the PDB] without interruption."

After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Bush "focused very seriously on the PDB briefings every morning, spending as much as an hour on it," the study says. With Vice President Richard B. Cheney, then-national security adviser Condoleezza Rice and his chief of staff, Andrew Card, present, he often used the briefing "to review and explore policy options."

There were almost 100 "deep dives" into PDB subjects in the Bush years, involving 200 analysts. Not surprisingly, "getting an item in the PDB became a major goal of analysts," and those in the CIA whose items attracted presidential interest "were rewarded," according to the study.

That was a problem, the study said, because focusing on producing PDB items that would draw favorable comment from Bush could have skewed "topic selection and treatment in the analytic community."

Since under Bush there was an emphasis on shorter lengths on PDBs, (the August 2001 item called "Bin Ladin Determined to Strike in US" was 1 1/2 pages long), the writing required sharper definition, the study said, sometimes more than justified. It also encouraged the use of "hyperbolic language in order to make the item 'sexy' enough for inclusion in the PDB," according to the study.

Analysts often used information carrying high classifications because it appeared to be of greater value, leaving aside that the facts were "occasionally of dubious reliability" and often incomplete and out of context.

In other cases, the study notes, analysts in fast-moving situations "sometimes 'save[d]' useful information for PDB use." While recognizing that some intelligence should be exclusively for the president, the study says that "withholding less sensitive information for hours or days so it appears first in the PDB is dangerous."

Knowing Bush's preferences, intelligence analysts sometimes gave "short shrift" to important issues when it came to the PDB. The study cites "the paucity of coverage of climate change issues" during the Bush period.

As the study points out, some of these problems existed "to a greater or lesser degree" under other presidents. But the Bush experience emphasizes that attention must be paid to the production of the PDB "to avoid producing pernicious spillover effects within the intelligence community itself."


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