President Obama's nighthawks: Top officials charged with guarding the nation's safety

With two wars, multiple crises abroad and growing terrorism activity at home, the nation's top security officials do not sleep in peace.
By Laura Blumenfeld
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 4, 2010

Headlights approach on an empty road. A government agent steps out of an armored SUV, carrying a locked, black satchel.

"Here's the bag," the agent says, to the intelligence official. "Here's the key."

The key turns, and out slides a brown leather binder, gold-stamped TOP SECRET. The President's Daily Brief, perhaps the most secret book on Earth.

The PDB handoff happens in the dead of every night. The book distills the nation's greatest threats, intelligence trends and concerns, and is written by a team at CIA headquarters.

"This is the one for the president," the intelligence official says, moving inside a secure building, opening the binder.

As dawn draws near, intelligence briefers distribute more than a dozen locked copies to Washington's nocturnals, a group of top officials charged by the president with guarding the nation's safety: CIA Director Leon Panetta, national security adviser James L. Jones, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., National Counterterrorism Center Director Michael Leiter, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mike Mullen and FBI Director Robert S. Mueller, among others.

With two wars, multiple crises abroad and the threat of growing terrorist activity at home, these national security officials do not sleep in peace. For them, the night is a public vigil. It is also a time of private reckoning with their own tensions and doubts. They read the highest classification of intelligence. They pursue the details of plots that realize the nation's vague, yet primal, fears.

It is all here, inside the brown leather binder. Black typeface on white paper, marked by red tabs and yellow highlighter, an accumulation of the dangers hidden in the dark. Compiling them is an all-night process, and it begins every day at sundown.

8:40 p.m.

On board special air mission

Andrews Air Force Base

There is no sun. The day fades from gray to black. It's raining, and the motorcades are late.

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