Presidential Daily Briefs

December 12, 2016 Thomas A. Reinstein

As President-elect Donald Trump focuses on his transition, there have been reports that he has not been having daily intelligence briefings. These briefings are important for the incoming president to learn about intelligence capabilities and operations, and since 1961, U.S. presidents have used Presidential Daily Briefs (PDBs) to keep up with top-secret intelligence. The story of why the PDBs were created reveals a crucial lesson for the next U.S. president—namely, President-elect Trump needs to establish a mutually workable and beneficial relationship with the intelligence community as early as possible.

The first PDB was published in 1961 in an effort to fix a broken system of briefing between the intelligence community and the administration of President John F. Kennedy. Since then the briefs have been one of the first things the president sees every morning. Each brief contains top-secret intelligence on hot spots throughout the world, boiled down into concise paragraphs. The end result is what intelligence scholar Christopher Andrew has described as the world’s “smallest circulation, most highly classified, and—in some respects—best informed daily newspaper.”

The PDB came about as a result of a series of breakdowns in the policymaker-intelligence nexus during Kennedy’s first year in office, and the PDB’s creation process stands as an example of what the next president should seek to avoid in dealing with the intelligence community.

John F. Kennedy took office with the goal of totally re-shaping national security policymaking. President Dwight Eisenhower had relied on full National Security Council meetings and rigorous policy review. In the Eisenhower administration, no paper went unread, and no voice went unheard. Such a system seemed to work well enough for Eisenhower, who possessed a good mind for bureaucracy.

But Kennedy thought this system far too complex and too cumbersome, inhibiting creative, nimble, and flexible policymaking. And JFK judged that Eisenhower made many important decisions without the help of his massive policy infrastructure, relying instead primarily on the advice of Secretary of State John Foster Dulles. Kennedy therefore chose to rely on small, ad hoc meetings of trusted advisors rather than replicate Eisenhower’s process.

Kennedy’s razor-thin margin of victory over Richard Nixon meant that he lacked the political capital to replace all of Eisenhower’s people. Although he brought in his inner circle, JFK had to take Republican considerations into account when filling cabinet posts. Thus he appointed moderate Republicans C. Douglas Dillon and Robert McNamara as secretaries of Treasury and Defense, respectively. Outside of the cabinet, Kennedy also appointed Republican academic McGeorge Bundy as special assistant for National Security.

Kennedy’s efforts at bipartisanship extended to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Two days after the election, Kennedy announced that he would retain Allen Dulles, Eisenhower’s Director of Central Intelligence, and Richard Bissell, CIA Deputy Director for Plans. This decision outraged several of Kennedy’s more liberal friends who were eager to move U.S. Cold War policy in a different direction. But Kennedy held firm. He thought that by keeping both men he could show his commitment to fighting the Cold War without heed to partisan considerations.

Kennedy was also inclined to take a hands-off approach to the CIA because he trusted the agency. He saw the CIA as a beacon of competence within a bloated, inefficient Washington bureaucracy. The agency’s success with covert action during its early years reinforced this sense of trust. Kennedy was fascinated with covert paramilitary operations like those that had toppled Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh of Iran in 1953 and President Jacobo Arbenz of Guatemala in 1954. Dulles and Bissell both thought such operations were the backbone of the CIA’s duties and worked hard to keep Kennedy convinced of covert action’s utility. Yet Kennedy’s early relationship with the CIA was rocky.

Dulles’s first difficulty with Kennedy was that the president was difficult to brief. Dulles had grown comfortable with delivering verbal briefings to Eisenhower during NSC meetings. Kennedy’s decision to scrap those meetings along with most of Eisenhower’s system left Dulles scrambling to find a mutually agreeable briefing method. Kennedy’s schedule was often too full for Dulles to plan regular meetings, and when he did manage to see the president, Kennedy often found the briefings superficial or uninteresting.

Dulles switched to giving Kennedy written memoranda but then he encountered different problems. To be sure, Kennedy preferred reading written reports to listening to verbal briefings. But Dulles’s memoranda were often densely written and filled with official language relating to classification. Kennedy liked simple, clear language. And because there was no system in place for determining exactly what the president should see, Kennedy often found himself overwhelmed with reports, and many of these reports were duplicative. Dulles’s newly improvised system therefore worked only marginally better at best.

The Bay of Pigs crisis strained the relationship between Kennedy and the CIA even further. Conceived and developed mostly under Eisenhower, the operation called for a battalion of CIA-trained Cuban exiles to overthrow Fidel Castro’s government. Dulles and Bissell both assured Kennedy that the operation would dispose of Castro just as similar operations had disposed of Mossadegh and Arbenz. But the result was a total failure.

Castro’s army quickly surrounded the small battalion shortly after it landed. Nearly 100 members of the battalion were killed, and the remaining 1,200 spent the next year in Cuban prisons before being repatriated to the United States. Kennedy accepted blame for the operation in public. But in private, he seethed that the so-called “experts” had been so wrong. “This is a hell of a way to learn things,” he complained shortly after the invasion’s failure. “You always assume intelligence people have special powers not available to ordinary mortals….”

Another crisis several months later caused Kennedy to lose even more faith in Dulles. On June 4, 1961, Kennedy met with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna, Austria. The summit was designed to cover a variety of topics, including whether West Berlin would continue to exist as a NATO outpost in the middle of Soviet-dominated East Germany. It deteriorated into a rout as Khrushchev dominated the negotiations so thoroughly that Kennedy later remarked, “he beat the hell out of me.” Kennedy thought that he had been unprepared for the summit because critical message traffic got lost in Dulles’s improvised briefing system.

The solution to this flawed briefing system came from a lower-level CIA analyst, Richard Lehman. After the Vienna summit, Kennedy military aide Chester Clifton decided to replace the massive piles of reports that so often overwhelmed Kennedy with a short, concise pamphlet that could fit in a breast pocket. Lehman had thought such a document necessary for years, and he worked up a draft pamphlet, striving for “a single publication, no sources barred, covering the whole ground, and written as much as possible in the president's language rather than in officialese.” On Saturday, June 17, 1961, Kennedy read Lehman’s first attempt while at his family’s estate in Glen Ora, Virginia. He liked it, and the CIA began regular production of what Lehman called the President’s Intelligence Checklist, or PICL for short.

The PICL helped the CIA rebuild its relationship with Kennedy. He read the checklist nearly every day of his presidency. Though he generally did so alone, he was quick to pass questions and feedback to the CIA through Clifton. In September 1963, Clifton informed the PICL’s editors that Kennedy was delighted with their work.

Not all presidents have used the PICL as thoroughly as JFK, and the document has undergone occasional changes to reflect presidential preferences. Under Lyndon Johnson, the CIA changed the document’s title to the President’s Daily Brief, as they thought that Johnson might ignore it if he identified it as too closely related to his predecessor. The agency also changed the format to a full-size booklet instead of the compact pamphlet Kennedy had used.

Richard Nixon got his intelligence straight from Henry Kissinger and often returned the PDB unread. Gerald Ford preferred verbal briefings from a CIA analyst he liked from his days as vice president. Jimmy Carter was a voracious intelligence consumer. He often wrote feedback on PDBs to send back to the CIA during meetings with Zbigniew Brzezinski. Oral briefings with Carter often dragged on for hours as the president asked question after question. Reagan read the PDB each day, but rarely let its contents change his views on national security matters. Former DCI George H.W. Bush, on the other hand, took intelligence seriously. Not only did he read the PDB first thing each morning, but he also set up a series of daily intelligence briefings with CIA analysts to go over its findings in great detail. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush both read the PDB regularly as well, although Bush’s briefers later noted that he preferred oral briefings to written ones. Obama reads his PDB each day on a secure tablet computer, attending oral briefings only occasionally.

The President’s Daily Brief stands as a successful result of a flawed process. Kennedy and Dulles did not bother to establish a close working relationship before JFK took over for Eisenhower. The result was a string of high-profile mistakes, as neither properly understood what the other wanted. Only when Kennedy’s subordinates were able to communicate what the president wanted could an appropriate briefing system be created. Since then the CIA has made establishing an effective relationship with presidential candidates a high priority.

Donald Trump would be wise to continue the tradition of establishing an effective relationship with the intelligence community. There is no substitute for frequent contact and mutual trust between intelligence analysts and policymakers if the intelligence community is to have a positive impact on policy and current events.

Thomas A. Reinstein is doctoral candidate in the History Department at Temple University. He studies the influence of intelligence on presidential decision making and how different groups of advisors affect policy.