The Washington Post’s reporting Thursday about how the White House is handling the national security threat from Russia included many disturbing details: senior advisers avoiding the Oval Office so as not to involve President Trump on high-priority issues that chief executives normally would address. Trump’s impatience driving him, in turn, to leave the room during high-stakes national security discussions. Perceived personal insecurities preventing him from accepting high-confidence intelligence community judgments.
Much of this is, indeed, unusual. One part of the story, however, is less disturbing than it might appear to civilians: changes to the delivery of Trump’s daily intelligence report, the President’s Daily Brief.
That the CIA can adjust the balance of written vs. oral assessments in briefings and manipulate the order of items in Trump’s book of secrets are features, not bugs, of the system. They reflect an intelligence community responding appropriately to an unusual “first customer” — even as they point to the need for exceptional caution going forward.
One former senior intelligence officer told The Post that “Russia-related intelligence that might draw Trump’s ire is in some cases included only in the written assessment and not raised orally.”
Deciding which parts of the President’s Daily Brief the president sees and what content, if any, he hears has usually rested with one man: the president. Since the creation in 1961 of the first personally tailored daily intelligence report for John F. Kennedy, more presidents than not have skipped formal CIA briefings and simply read the book themselves (or discussed it with policy advisers instead of CIA officials). Leaders as diverse as Lyndon Johnson, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton eschewed regular face-to-face sessions with intelligence briefers.
But even presidents who did regularly invite intelligence officers in to brief them didn’t often use those meetings to talk through every item in the book. An effectively conceptualized, drafted and edited article, even if brief, can cover a topic so comprehensively that it requires no oral follow-up. Also, the crushing time constraints on the chief executive make it undesirable, if not impossible, to discuss every PDB item. Choices must be made every day about what to highlight out loud and what to leave unsaid. That’s part of a well-functioning process, not a flaw.
The Post also reported that a “veteran CIA analyst” serving as Trump’s main briefer “adjusts the order of his presentation and text, aiming to soften the impact.”
As a former CIA daily intelligence briefer during President George W. Bush’s administration, I read this and thought, “Well, of course he does!”
The daily brief typically includes several assessments, often spanning the globe in its coverage. Intelligence leaders and briefers must decide which one to put first, and then how to order the others. Several considerations apply: Which item is most likely to inform the president for something on his schedule that very day? How would one piece lay the groundwork for absorbing the key message of a subsequent one? What topic is so complicated or contentious that starting with it could preclude even getting to the others?
That latter question was on my mind many days as a briefer. I learned over time — through plenty of trial and error — that even a 30- to 40-minute briefing session has its own momentum, its own rhythm, its own sense of balance. The recipients of my briefings routinely listened to the material that we had determined they needed to know, but I knew that they had also invested much time, energy and emotion in the policies that these intelligence judgments affected.
By spending intense — often tense — moments every working day with our customers, we briefers gained a good sense of what worked for their individual learning styles. Leading off with some sensitive or contentious topic could prompt a knee-jerk reaction, clouding the communication of subsequent items. For example, if a senior U.S. official were enraged about her recent treatment at the hands of a foreign government, starting the next day’s briefing with an assessment of that government’s positive behavior might not play as well as building up to it.
Over the course of more than a year as a briefer, I developed a sense of which topics to brief after others to ensure that the core message got through as clearly as possible.
While it’s easy for people who aren’t familiar with the intelligence community to believe that changes in the oral-versus-written delivery method or the conscious reordering of each day’s intelligence package are the CIA distorting the message that Trump gets, it would also be a mistake. That kind of shallow thinking misunderstands the extent to which every intelligence briefing is a social process, with the ultimate goal of ensuring that each briefing recipient, each day, takes on board the judgments in each intelligence assessment as much as possible.
For perspective, substitute any past president whom you judge differently from this one and see how you feel. For instance, President Barack Obama. Former intelligence leaders have said they didn’t repeat most of the stories in his PDB when they got in to see Obama; instead, they would “walk on” additional items, assuming that he or his senior advisers had read every item in the daily book of secrets and ask about them if they wanted more information or insight.
There is a limit, of course, to how much variation the CIA should accommodate itself to in briefing the president and his top aides. It’s not inconsequential — and it suggests that the men and women in America’s intelligence agencies need to remain in a state of hypervigilance.
Changing the format or order of a presentation to suit a president’s style represents good customer service. But changing the conclusions in that presentation would be politicization — the altering of an intelligence judgment based on perceptions of a customer’s reaction to it. No issue in the intelligence world is taken more seriously.
The president’s briefer almost certainly is trying to “soften the impact” of key judgments not in the sense of weakening the judgments themselves, but rather in the interest of ensuring that they are received and understood. After all, The Post’s reporting makes clear that the CIA continues to stand by its conclusions that Russia attempted to interfere in last year’s campaign on Trump’s behalf. Nothing indicates that the briefer has changed a bottom-line judgment to please the president or even held back on including Russia-related items in the President’s Daily Brief.
Make no mistake — this intelligence officer carries a heavy ethical burden. My experience and training suggest that he and his colleagues remain acutely aware of their red lines and take great pains to avoid crossing them.