/ Published January 16, 2018
The President’s Book of Secrets: The Untold Story of Intelligence Briefings to America’s Presidents from Kennedy to Obama by David Priess. Public Affairs, 2016, 386 pp.
David Priess pulls back the veil on the President’s Book of Secrets to introduce a world where a single private conversation might make the difference between safety and national catastrophe. Despite the enormity of the stakes, Priess ably draws upon his experience as a career CIA officer to craft a human tale across 10 administrations. He invites us with intimate details about the series of briefers passing the crown jewels of national intelligence to the commander in chief and a tight circle of advisers on a daily basis. We learn how one young analyst fought back morning sickness as she presented the president’s daily brief (PDB) to Al Gore in the back seat of the vice presidential limousine, Gore all the while scarfing down breakfast on his way to the White House. Priess takes us inside the presidential residence in April 1981 as Ronald Reagan recovers from an assassin’s bullet. The Gipper is too exhausted to absorb the briefing but sharp enough to notice the bulge of get-well cards in his national security adviser’s folder, smuggled into the first national security session back from the hospital in partial fulfillment of a fatherly promise to the advisor’s kindergarten-age daughter. Reagan inscribes the kindergartner’s card with a thank you note of his own, and a photo of this remarkable correspondence appears on page 142.
The human element painstakingly incorporated into President’s Book of Secrets serves a second purpose—of current relevance to the health of the intelligence profession and connected to a broader restoration of faith in American democracy. In the aftermath of the Vietnam War, the eminent twentieth-century political scientist Sam Huntington called our spasms of doubt creedal passion periods. Others have remarked on volatility in American political development marked by critical elections when old structures are swept away and novel coalitions form to reconstitute major parties. As society becomes more complex, more technological, more bureaucratic, and more dependent on specialized services, critical transitions for American democracy bring virulent ideological divisions between absolutists, who wish to tear down institutions to rescue traditional American values, and pragmatists, who believe that progress toward American ideals is only possible if a popular movement can drain the swamp and on a solid foundation replace it with enlightened administration.
From sociological works by Talcott Parsons, C. Wright Mills, Terence Johnson, and Andrew Abbott, Naval War College professor Tom Nichols in The Death of Expertise (Oxford, 2017) recently related how these factions may grow to detest one another, agreeing on little else but that the obsolete establishment must go. Radical revision is politically easier, and the risks more palatable, if the current regime is rotten to the core, filled with craven bureaucrats who care nothing for their professions or the country they serve. Indeed, corporate expertise and professional jurisdiction under the revolutionary view are perverted to afflict cancer on the body politic. The Deep State at some point breaks free of social responsibility, the general will, and the president’s power to reign it all in.
Priess does not set out explicitly to slay this dragon, but in the book, he marshals his formidable powers as writer, intelligence analyst, and social scientist to convince a broad audience that this untold story of unsung heroes is true. If, in the age of narrowcast news, celebrity talking heads, and crowdsourced reporting, authentic patriots within the CIA and throughout the executive branch cannot be properly understood or appreciated, then revolutionaries at the gate have reason to pause before dismantling the state.
Priess’ chronology of the PDB covers a lot of ground with a cast of hundreds—many of whom he interviewed for behind-the-scenes electricity in this narrative. Among the multitude of protagonists, though, one self-effacing, humble personality, whose saga of public service actually eclipses the book’s epic proportions, emerges as the main hero. George H. W. Bush anchors one of 10 case chapters as president during world transformation after the end of the Cold War. He figures in six more, owing to his multiple roles as ambassador to China, director of the CIA, vice president, former president, and father to a president. In addition, Pres. George H. W. Bush penned a gracious foreword for Book of Secrets, declaring that his “love of the job (director of Central Intelligence) was all about the remarkable men and women who make up our intelligence community. Their dedication, their courage . . . inspired me every single day.”
In Book of Secrets, George H. W. Bush is the one and only “spymaster president.” He thus understands the importance to national security of reserving precious face time with the PDB briefer—for the opportunity to read and listen, to interact with a professional intelligence officer when formulating presidential requests for further research, and to shore up morale of devoted analysts who labor long each day to serve the “first customer” the most useful briefing possible.
Even so, Priess does not pull punches. Over the half-century of the PDB’s existence, Pres. George H. W. Bush’s example has not been followed all that often. Indeed, several presidents and senior advisers appear in the book disparaging the PDB as not much better than press clippings or what they get from other agencies such as State or Defense responsible for implementing specific policies. For some interview subjects in the book, the most important reason to pay attention to the PDB is not the quality of professional analysis but the fact that the president sees it nearly every day. Even the Spymaster President would likely agree that despite constitutional checks and balances and the rise of professionalism in modern executive branch bureaucracy, the coin of the White House realm, as it was in the European courts of old, remains propinquity—access to the chief and the opportunity to influence thinking before important decisions are taken.
State bureaucracies around the world come up against a similar dilemma. In American intelligence circles, it is known as the Kent-Kendall debate: hew close to the pure, objective professional ideal where expert service is substantially the same regardless of ideology, party, or policy agenda of democratically elected authority and risk becoming irrelevant or worse, irritating to said authority; or customize professional advice to make it useful and politically responsive from the customer’s perspective and color intelligence away from actual threats and opportunities shaping the country’s fate. Either extreme, of course, is untenable. The trick is to work continually under the Constitution toward the best balance. Priess’s recommendation for increased access and therefore greater influence from senior career CIA analysts who craft the PDB goes to show that, as the United States slides from unquestioned hegemony to competitive great power politics on multiple fronts, here is one experienced official who would like to see more Kent than Kendall, a disciplined, objective intelligence product above endemic political jockeying surrounding the White House.
Book of Secrets came out just before the 2016 elections. Its concluding recommendations must now be weighed in light of a victorious populist who campaigns against both party establishments, ardently lambastes a multiyear investigation of close aides by special prosecutor—picking up where President Obama’s Federal Bureau of Investigation left off, and who, in so many words, accuses top intelligence professionals in the previous administration of proffering all Kendall and not enough Kent.
Pres. George H. W. Bush and Priess contend the country would be safer if every commander in chief reserved space at the start of each workday for a thorough, unguarded, private conversation with the PDB briefer. This practice puts a face on the ranks of highly skilled, dedicated professionals within the executive branch who carry the burden of a sacred trust to defend the republic against enemies foreign and domestic. Trust in the relationship binding the president and his long-time subject matter experts in intelligence, not to mention the uniformed and civil services, pays dividends, as Priess documented immediately after the 9/11 attacks, when American democracy must navigate the next international crisis.
Action items from Book of Secrets, however, do not apply exclusively to the president. If the PDB process is to flourish and achieve its urgent objective, that influential yet amorphous layer of appointed officials between the president and career professionals will have to consider their own behavior. For members of the president’s National Security Council, there is no escaping Machiavelli or Kent-Kendall—any shift toward the rigid objectivity of Kent will come with a political price. Still, that may be precisely what is required before any administration can follow the sage advice in the President’s Book of Secrets.
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