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.
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.”
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.”