Sunday, July 31, 2016

The President's Book of Secrets

The Secret is out!

David Priess has written a remarkable book titled The President's Book of Secrets ( which shatters many of the prevailing myths which surround the CIA.  Priess, a former CIA briefer himself, takes the reader on a deep dive into the Presidential Daily Brief (PDB).  This daily intelligence briefing, prepared by the CIA, will now be shared by both Presidential aspirants Trump and Clinton.

Priess traces the origins and history of the PDB.  Why is there is PDB?  The simple answer avoid future Pearl Harbors.  This book was not really initiated by the intelligence community until the Kennedy administration.  Today the PDB is delivered on a secure IPad to President Obama.

Different Presidents have used intelligence in very different ways.  Nixon was deeply suspicious of the CIA, suspecting that is was an elite East coast institution that was hostile to his interests.  Stacks of the reports piled up unread.  Nixon relied upon Kissinger for foreign policy expertise and Priess notes one CIA analyst noting that "Kissinger didn't give a crap about the PDB."

Two Bush Presidents, Dallas, TX
George H.W. Bush, as a former Director of the CIA, was far more engaged with the PDB.  He would take daily briefings with CIA analysts to probe its contents further.  This was a habit that his son picked up as well.

Priess, a former CIA briefer himself, managed to get amazing access to many powerful officials on both sides of the aisle.  George H. W. Bush wrote a Foreword to the book praising "the remarkable men and women who make up our intelligence community."

Some of the books most interesting details concern the Gulf War of 1990-91.  The Bush administration decided not to the kick off the ground war in Kuwait until half of Saddam's tanks had been destroyed from the air.  But CIA and Defense department assessments of the number of tanks destroyed by enemy air power differed.  CENTCOM tended to overestimate the number of tanks destroyed versus the CIA.  President Bush ascribed the difference to "pilot euphoria" with which he was personally familiar from his service as a naval aviator in World War II.  When Operation Desert Storm, the ground campaign, was eventually ordered to begin in 1991 it only took one hundred hours to liberate Kuwait.  Coalition casualties were much lower than the bloodbath that had been widely predicted by the punditry.
James Bond for liberals
Entertainment NOT Reality
Many Americans have a completely distorted view of the role of the CIA.  Based the most recent film Jason Bourne, they may presume that the job of its Director is to kill or torture as many of its own agents as possible.  Others have read only polemics that rail against the CIA such as Tim Weiner's Legacy of Ashes (

Priess's book is an antidote to the popular and grossly distorted view that so many Americans hold of the CIA and our intelligence services.

Intelligence gathering is an art rather than a science.  No one bats a thousand and no one can get it right all the time.  The CIA has had many failings over its history.  They failed to warn about the coming of the Iranian Revolution in the Carter years. Their database supplied the wrong coordinates which led to the accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in May 1999.  They failed to adequately warn President George W. Bush about the intentions and capabilities of Al Qaeda prior to the devastating 9/11 attack.

Nor is the imperfection of intelligence services anything new.  I suspect that it is only a matter of time before archaeologists working near the site of ancient Troy find an inscription documenting that King Priam's chief of intelligence informed him that it was a "slam dunk" that the wooden horse brought by the Greeks was empty!

But the intelligence services do get it right more often than not.  The CIA is a well funded organization staffed with thousands of dedicated and talented translators, engineers, analysts and some field agents.  Everyone hears about their failures.  But their many successes go unheralded and unacknowledged.  Priess's important and timely book is an attempt to redress this imbalance.

There is some comfort in knowing that, regardless of who is elected this fall, our President will be served the best available intelligence covering threats around the world.  Presidents that engage actively with the intelligence community and take live briefings are much better served than those that take a more passive approach.

Special thanks to the FDR Library's Roosevelt Reading Festival which takes place every June in Hyde Park, NY (  This June I had the pleasure of meeting David Priess in Hyde Park where both of us gave presentations on our books. 

1 comment:

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