Sept. 11 Revealed The Importance And Limits Of The President's Daily Briefing

20 hours ago
Originally published on September 11, 2018 10:43 am

On Sept. 11, 2001, President George W. Bush was visiting Sarasota, Fla. At 8 a.m. sharp, the CIA's Michael Morell delivered the daily intelligence briefing — something he did six mornings a week — regardless of whether the president was at the White House or on the road.

"Contrary to press reporting and myth, there was absolutely nothing in my briefing that had to do with terrorism that day," Morell recalled. "Most of it had to do with the Israeli-Palestinian issue."

As Morell concluded, Bush stepped into his waiting motorcade and headed to an elementary school. Moments later, news broke of the terror attacks in New York. Shortly after that, Bush and Morell were on Air Force One — and the president wanted answers.

"The president said to me, 'Michael, who did this?' " Morell said. He didn't know but had a strong suspicion.

"I told him that when we got to the end of the trail, I was absolutely confident, absolutely certain, that it would take us to [Osama] bin Laden and al-Qaida," said Morell, who retired in 2013 as the CIA's deputy director and now hosts the podcast Intelligence Matters.

That landmark day captured both the critical importance — and the frustrating limits — of the President's Daily Briefing, or PDB.

Launched under President Truman

The practice of providing the president with a daily intelligence briefing began in 1946 with President Harry Truman, who was trying to make sense of a still-chaotic world in the aftermath of World War II.

"He was troubled that he was receiving these random reports from different departments and no one was telling him, or suggesting to him, what was particularly more important than something else," said David Robarge, the CIA's chief historian.

Truman created the Central Intelligence Group, the forerunner of the CIA. Within weeks, the briefings began, and they were brief indeed. Most were short notes from U.S. ambassadors with little or no context.

Many reports were based on rumors or newspaper stories abroad and were difficult to verify, Robarge said.

"We dealt a lot with information peddlers and fabricators and paper mills, as we called them," he said. "We were very desperate for information, and everybody knew that and took advantage of it. We spent a lot of our time in those early years sorting out the wheat from the chaff."

Despite being a part of every president's daily routine for more than 70 years, the briefings are rarely discussed publicly. Just last month, the CIA declassified the first 20 briefings delivered to Truman — and many still resonate today.

"The very first general item for Harry Truman was about some false information that was being put out about Russia and the United States," said David Priess, a former CIA officer.

Priess was a member of the presidential briefing team in the early 2000s and wrote a history of the briefings called The President's Book of Secrets.

Those initial briefings dealt with a trade dispute with China, which was resisting U.S. imports, and rising tensions on the Korean Peninsula, where war would break out a few years later.

"Many of the issues that President Truman was dealing with in February 1946 are still on the agenda today," said Priess.

Providing analysis

Today's version took shape under President John F. Kennedy and was driven in part by the Bay of Pigs, the failed CIA operation to overthrow Cuba's leader Fidel Castro in 1961.

"We knew John F. Kennedy was disappointed after the Bay of Pigs debacle early in his presidency and that helped spur this new intelligence product," Priess said.

The documents began including more analysis on the pros and cons of potential U.S. actions abroad. While the CIA has always handled the report, other agencies now contribute, including the National Security Agency and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

One misconception is that all presidents are briefed face to face. But, as Rodney Faraon, a former CIA briefer, said, "Every president receives their briefing differently."

Most go over the briefing book on their own. For President Lyndon Johnson, it was bedtime reading. Richard Nixon didn't care for it and allowed only one White House adviser to see it — Henry Kissinger. Barack Obama received it on his iPad and had it circulated to more than 30 advisers.

Putting it together

While Washington is sleeping, a team at CIA headquarters makes final edits to the leather-bound briefing book, updating it frequently.

Rodney Faraon's job in the late 1990s and early 2000s was to study up on the document overnight and head to the home of his boss, CIA Director George Tenet, at 6 a.m.

"I would be briefing him in a secure vehicle on his way from his house to either the White House or to CIA headquarters," Faraon recalled.

David Priess delivered his briefing to the director of the FBI, a man who was always pressing him for more details — Robert Mueller. Mueller now leads the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and possible coordination with the Trump campaign.

And Michael Morell remembers his briefings with Bush as if "I was in graduate school preparing to go in to seven or eight exams every morning with somebody who is going to fire questions at you nonstop."

Trump's approach

President Trump initially questioned the need for a daily briefing.

But Mike Pompeo, the CIA director before becoming secretary of state, said it has become part of the president's routine.

"Nearly every day, I get up, get ready, read the material that's been presented early in the morning and then trundle down [from CIA headquarters] to the White House," Pompeo said back in January.

His successor as CIA director, Gina Haspel, is now a regular at the briefings, as is Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence.

The intelligence community has had both great successes — like locating Osama bin Laden in Pakistan — and failures — like claiming Iraq's Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. The former CIA briefers say their role is to provide the best possible intelligence and leave the policy choices to the president.

David Priess cites an old CIA expression: "You can lead policymakers to intelligence, but you can't make them think."

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Thousands of people came together today in New York at the Memorial Plaza where the twin towers of the World Trade Center once stood.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Oh, say, can you see...

SHAPIRO: The ceremony to mark 17 years since September 11, 2001, included moments of silence and tolling bells...

(SOUNDBITE OF BELLS TOLLING)

SHAPIRO: ...And the recitation of names of those who died that day.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Diane Hale-McKinzy.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Richard B. Hall.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

September 11 still influences our everyday experiences with the increased security checks and protocols that began after that day. And it still influences how the U.S. engages with the rest of the world. Perhaps our best understanding of the 9/11 attacks and the events leading up to it comes from a commission.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GEORGE W BUSH: This commission has been charged with a crucial task. To prevent future attacks, we must understand the methods of our enemies.

SHAPIRO: The 9/11 report came out in 2004. The commission co-chairs were Tom Kean, Republican former governor of New Jersey, and Lee Hamilton, Democratic former congressman of Indiana. The two of them now have a new report sponsored by the U.S. Institute of Peace. It looks at how extremism has evolved in countries with fragile governments in Africa and the Middle East.

CORNISH: The report details how countries including China, Russia and Iran are making inroads in those fragile states and why that's leaving the United States in a weaker position.

SHAPIRO: Governor Tom Kean and Congressman Lee Hamilton, welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

LEE HAMILTON: Thank you.

TOM KEAN: Thank you very much.

SHAPIRO: The report gives some interesting examples of places where Russia and China have used American absence to step in and become important players in places like Africa. China is Africa's largest single country trade partner and biggest creditor, you write. You tell the story of Moscow supplying weapons to Nigeria when the U.S. wouldn't because of human rights concerns.

KEAN: Yeah, that's true. And we also believe that we've got - as rich as we are, we're limited in our resources. If we're spending billions on military efforts to try and contain terrorism in Syria, we're not spending the same money to help us economically and become influential those areas. We just can't do both. And this - what we're proposing here, which is strengthening these fragile states, is an awful lot cheaper than using our troops. And we think it's not only cheaper, but it's going to be more successful. So what we're recommending is a whole change in American policy where we recognize that our troops have done a wonderful job and occasion - still we're going to have to use them. But where possible, we want to get into these fragile states and give the people some hope.

SHAPIRO: Does trying to reshape society raise some warning flags? If you're talking about trying to make societies more democratic, more liberal, more like the United States, that sounds like a level of meddling in foreign affairs that would make some people very uncomfortable.

HAMILTON: I think that overstates what we're trying to do. We are not trying to engage in nation building. What we are trying to do is to strengthen fragile states. We're not naive about this. We try to be realistic. But what we can do, as Tom has emphasized, is to try to help vulnerable countries, societies better resist extremism. Now, how do we do that? The key, in a word, is to improve governance, to reduce corruption, to reduce repression because where you have corruption, governments that don't meet the needs of their people, you have the breeding ground for extremism.

SHAPIRO: In your view, what role has U.S. policy since 9/11 played in the increasing chaos and extremism that you describe? I mean, do you think the U.S. involvement in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Yemen - it's a very long list - has made things better or worse?

KEAN: Well, it depends on the time, depends on the country. We've made some mistakes. No question about that. And what we're recommending here is a far different policy and one that doesn't do things to people but works with people. Countries need to supply infrastructure for their people. People need to get clean water. People need to have all those things that we're used to.

SHAPIRO: But the U.S. has invested in putting a lot of those things in place in, for example, Afghanistan, and a lot of those things were blown up.

KEAN: Well, that's true. But that's why you got to get - (laughter) you got to do it in places that aren't already engaged necessarily in war. A lot of these fragile states here are unstable because they don't have a government that works with their own people. We're talking about coming into those areas, working with the people, helping to establish governments that can serve people's needs. By the way, al-Qaida wants to do that now. And we think you can do that better through legitimate government supported by the people.

SHAPIRO: Sounds like a very oversimplified version of what you're saying is focus on the State Department more than the Pentagon.

KEAN: Well, in a way, but look; let me give an example of what can happen. As you know, the largest Muslim country in the world is Indonesia. When we polled in Muslim countries after 9/11, we had about a 20 percent popularity in the United States. Eighty percent of the people didn't really like us. Well, as you remember, years ago Indonesia had that tsunami. We sent in a lot of aid. We sent in former President Bush and President Clinton as a team. United States was very visible. After we had done that, we had a popularity rating of 70 percent. Seventy percent of the people liked the United States. Now, that's a lot cheaper than war.

SHAPIRO: And at the same time, Saudi Arabia's opening a lot of free universities in Indonesia.

KEAN: They are. They are.

HAMILTON: Look; you say focus more on the state and DOD. I think what we want to say is that you have to use all the tools of American power. Now, we have often turned to the gun quickly, but it is not sufficient by itself. What has to be done is to try to build resilient societies. Now, that is more of a task for the State Department. So I guess what we're saying is you need both of them. We have done pretty well thus far with the military side of it. We've got to up our game with regard to the diplomatic, political, economic side of it. But you're going to need all of these tools.

SHAPIRO: What's your assessment of how the Trump administration is approaching these problems?

KEAN: Well, we've talked to a number of members of the Trump administration to bring them in line with what we're doing so they know that we want to be helpful and get their ideas. And they've been encouraging. Now, they're obviously going to sit back and wait till they see what our final report is before they say they're going to jump on board. But the conversations we've had so on - so far have been very constructive. And they've given us some good information, some good suggestions, some help. And they've encouraged us to keep on going, that they like what we're doing. And by the way, the same thing is true of the Congress. So we...

SHAPIRO: But...

KEAN: We think this may be one of the few things that can bring people together.

SHAPIRO: But after a year and a half in office, the "America First" policies of the Trump administration don't seem to be implementing the kinds of priorities that you're talking about in this report.

HAMILTON: What we're all about is trying to strengthen those elements that clearly exist in this administration and the previous administration who are sympathetic, who advocate, who are trying to put into effect a preventative strategy. We want to strengthen that and reinforce it. We're not just dealing with one administration. We're dealing with American foreign policy over a period of decades.

SHAPIRO: Lee Hamilton and Tom Kean were co-chairs of the 9/11 Commission. Their new report is called "Beyond The Homeland: Protecting America From Extremism In Fragile States." Thanks to both of you.

KEAN: Thank you.

HAMILTON: Thank you.

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