Rotten to the Core?
How America’s Political Decay Accelerated During the Trump Era
Each modern U.S. president has begun his day with the President’s Daily Brief (PDB), containing the most sensitive intelligence reporting and analysis in the world. The Central Intelligence Agency’s spies, the National Security Agency’s listening posts, and the nation’s reconnaissance satellites gather secrets for it, while Washington’s enemies send undercover agents to try to unearth its classified content.
For the past 50 years, intelligence officers have made their way to the White House five or six days a week to hand-deliver the PDB to the president—or, in some administrations, to the national security adviser, who then gets it to the president. Assessments from analysts at the CIA (and, since 2005, the wider intelligence community) prepare the president for foreign visits and overseas trips, anticipate national security threats, and identify global opportunities. What insiders simply call “the book” represents the highest fulfillment of the intelligence mission: to provide accurate, timely, and objective information from classified and unclassified sources alike to help the president defend the homeland and protect U.S. interests abroad.
Yet the story of its origins has gone largely untold.
From its birth in late 1964 during President Lyndon Johnson’s administration, the PDB has seen its format, highly classified content, and mode of delivery tailored for each sitting commander in chief. Because the PDB has been the most tightly guarded daily publication on the face of the earth, only glimpses of its history exist. But despite its secrecy, much is still known. For instance, no chief executive in the United States’ first 150 years received any objective analysis of international events from an independent intelligence service. Secretaries of state and other advisers may have offered assessments of various foreign developments, but reports tailored to the specific needs and style of each occupant of the White House simply didn’t exist until the middle of the twentieth century.
Early presidents did not avoid foreign intelligence altogether. The first U.S. president, George Washington, brought to the nation’s highest office a personal understanding of the business, dating from his days handling espionage duties against Great Britain as commander in chief of the Continental army. President Abraham Lincoln used Allan Pinkerton, co-founder of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, to lead the nation’s intelligence gathering during much of the Civil War. The duties and the operations of the “Pinkertons” and the short-lived Bureau of Military Information had little to do with overseas issues, however, emphasizing instead the clandestine collection of information about the Confederacy, to the neglect of what we today consider analysis. For the next 50 years, the U.S. intelligence system continued to lag well behind the services of the world’s other powers, and the nation’s experience in World War I moved the ball forward only slightly when President Woodrow Wilson allowed a small U.S. foreign intelligence collection capability to emerge during the war.
In 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the nation’s first foreign intelligence service: the Office of the Coordinator of Information, which morphed into the Office of Strategic Services the following year. A largely unknown OSS component, the Office of Research and Analysis (R&A), emerged as the country’s first nondepartmental analytic unit, collating information from diplomats, military reports, international media sources, and academic research. During the peak of the R&A effort, nearly a thousand political scientists, historians, economists, geographers, cartographers, and others produced about 2,000 long reports, many more short memorandums, and stacks of generic handbooks about other countries.
Via the president’s secretary, OSS head William J. Donovan sent FDR some of the R&A’s assessments, covered by a memo that he wrote personally. These notes started out largely administrative but increasingly addressed substantive intelligence as the war progressed and included some unedited intelligence tidbits from case officers in the field. Roosevelt appeared to like the OSS director’s memos, which certainly offered more interesting prose than the thick bureaucratic text that typically reached his desk from others. Donovan’s style embraced some decidedly nonacademic phrases such as “that old fox” and “the final death-bed contortions of a putrefied Nazi diplomacy.”
The analytic efforts of the R&A were commendable but insufficient. Not only did wartime analysts lack access to foreigners’ intercepted communications, their publications also tended to provide far more background information than actionable insights. For example, R&A officers in 1945 produced a civil affairs handbook on Germany that reached a whopping 2,000 pages. Hopes faded for a rigorous system to gather and assess useful intelligence for the commander in chief.
President Harry S. Truman, only recently a senator from Missouri, faced a steep learning curve when he assumed the presidency in April 1945. During his less than 12 weeks as Roosevelt’s vice president, Truman had picked up virtually nothing from the longest-serving president in U.S. history to prepare him for the national security burdens he now faced. The ailing Roosevelt had spent much of early 1945 away from Washington, limiting his direct contact with Truman, outside of cabinet gatherings, to two inconsequential meetings. He excluded his vice president from major discussions of foreign affairs, including his vision for the postwar world and his ideas regarding a U.S. intelligence infrastructure after hostilities ended. Roosevelt even neglected to tell Truman about the production of the atomic bomb.
Nevertheless, Truman came to believe that the consolidation of intelligence, not just its collection, was crucial—and that the Japanese would not have surprised the United States at Pearl Harbor if his predecessor had established a more robust system. Truman then created the Central Intelligence Group (CIG), which he tasked with “the correlation and evaluation of intelligence relating to the national security, and the appropriate dissemination within the Government of the resulting strategic and national policy intelligence.” Truman did not explicitly mention current intelligence, such as daily analytic support for the president, but he clearly wanted it, complaining when conflicting reports reached his desk without any attempt at coordination.
CIG’s Office of Reports and Estimates in February 1946 attempted to meet his need with the first daily analytic product targeted at the president personally: the Daily Summary, a classified compilation of reports from across the government. It didn’t take long for the existence of Truman’s Daily Summary to hit the press. That July, The New York Times said the president’s new secret “newspaper” made him “the best informed Chief Executive in history on foreign affairs.” In 1951, the Current Intelligence Bulletin replaced the Daily Summary as the top daily intelligence product.
Dwight D. Eisenhower came into the presidency in 1953 with much greater international experience than Truman. Eisenhower also carried forward into his new job a rigid pattern for receiving and processing intelligence information and for making decisions—an approach that reduced the importance of the agency’s daily intelligence product for the next eight years. Thus, agency analysts shifted their primary emphasis from writing presidentially relevant information in the Bulletin to preparing a steady stream of papers and briefing materials for the weekly National Security Council (NSC) gathering, which Eisenhower chaired virtually every Thursday for eight years.
But by early 1954, Eisenhower began to grumble that the intelligence coming to him lacked context for its assessments of the Soviet threat and failed to differentiate between the Soviet Union’s capabilities and its intentions. Eisenhower in 1956 established the President’s Board of Consultants on Foreign Intelligence Activities—which, five years later, became the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. Eisenhower tasked this group of experts with examining the entire structure of U.S. intelligence. A new focus was placed on long-form National Intelligence Estimates (NIEs), which found an easy place in the step-by-step NSC process. Even with the rise of the NIE, director Allen Dulles took time to write an item for the Bulletin personally in 1957, an unusually speculative and long piece (more than two pages) relating the difficulties facing Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. But Eisenhower still seemed to avoid the product. An internal CIA memo from October 1957 summed up the general frustration with the Bulletin’s reception: “The present publication is not read by top officials. It is not established as ‘must’ reading. At best, portions of it may be conveyed to these officials by briefing officers.”
Agency officers tried one more angle. In January 1958, they replaced the Current Intelligence Bulletin with the Central Intelligence Bulletin (CIB), a new document with more material. The first issue featured a “Daily Brief” section, with 12 items of six to eight lines each, followed by several pages of articles addressing many of these short items in more depth. The articles also broke new ground by showing source document numbers so readers could look up original reports themselves. Trying to appeal to Eisenhower’s fondness for graphics, producers of the revamped CIB soon added a world map with red arrows indicating the areas covered by that issue’s items. A CIA internal retrospective notes that the new CIB successfully forecast developments such as anti–United States demonstrations during Vice President Richard Nixon’s May 1958 trip to Latin America and the same month’s political crisis in France that led to former French President Charles de Gaulle’s return to politics, but it admits that the CIB missed a few big calls: the Baathist coup in Iraq in July 1958, the time and manner of Batista’s fall in Cuba at the end of 1958, and the Tibetan revolt starting in March 1959. Although the dissemination quickly rose to 90 copies outside of the CIA, there is no evidence that the president himself took an interest in it.
John F. Kennedy entered the White House in January 1961 with a decidedly different approach to national security decision-making from that of his predecessor. Where Eisenhower had enforced a rigorous structure of briefings and NSC meetings before taking foreign policy actions, Kennedy adopted an improvisational style built around informal conversations. A top CIA analyst during Kennedy’s term later likened the new president’s less bureaucratic approach to a “pickup touch football game crossed with a Harvard seminar.”
Kennedy was also a voracious reader, valuing the kind of crisp, insightful prose he had learned during his brief stint as a journalist for the Chicago Herald-American before entering politics. As commander in chief, he got the majority of his information not from classified intelligence analysis but from the public press. Quickly, Kennedy’s cabinet and senior White House staff learned to scour the daily newspapers to prepare for his inevitable questions. The president’s ability to absorb so much, so rapidly—picked up in a month-long speed-reading course, from which he claimed he could take in 1,200 words a minute—did not mean that he wanted to struggle with long, wordy documents. Instead, he preferred a text he could get through easily. After just one week on the job, he asked an assistant handing him a thick booklet of briefing papers, “Look, I’ve only got a half hour today. Do I have to read it all?” Soon after, Major General Ted Clifton, Kennedy’s military aide, urged the CIA’s current intelligence chief to keep memorandums and reports for Kennedy double-spaced and down to about two pages. The message was clear: dense, bureaucratic prose had served Dwight Eisenhower just fine, but it would not fly with this president.
Although Kennedy’s loose, carefree style worked well on many issues, nothing spotlighted the downside to his approach more than Cuban exiles’ failed invasion of their home island, with U.S. funding and training, in April 1961 during the Bay of Pigs fiasco. Up to this point, he had great confidence asserting himself on domestic topics while grudgingly trusting the national security establishment on military and intelligence issues. The debacle prompted a reexamination of how Kennedy should receive his intelligence analysis—setting in motion a new system that would eventually produce the President’s Daily Brief.
White House officials had identified a core problem: the president was proving unable to stay in one place long enough for substantive national security discussions. What followed was a document written specifically for Kennedy, who could flip through the slim booklet at his leisure. The new President’s Intelligence Checklist hooked Kennedy, who received the first issue in between laps at his pool at the family retreat in Glen Ora, Virginia, in June 1961. The president approved the continued production of the Checklist on the spot.
On the afternoon of Friday, November 22, 1963, Lyndon B. Johnson stood in Air Force One on the tarmac of Love Field in Dallas to be sworn in as the 36th president of the United States. Less than 24 hours later, he was back in Washington for his first morning in office, unsure what to expect from a White House and National Security Council staff that had treated him like a stranger for more than two years. Relations between Kennedy and Johnson had been strained: the high-tension Democratic Party primaries in 1960 played a role; so did the simple fact that up to this point presidents had kept their vice presidents distant. Besides, the two men simply did not like each other, which showed in the way the president and his staff talked to the vice president: with disdain and, often, downright meanness.
The only attempt to give Johnson the Checklist during his vice presidency came from Dick Lehman in the CIA’s Office of Current Intelligence. Lehman had noticed an oddity back in December 1961, when Kennedy had told the Agency to deliver his Checklist outside the White House, for the first time, to Dean Rusk at the State Department and Robert McNamara at the Pentagon. Three of the four statutory members of the National Security Council—the president, secretary of state, and secretary of defense—would now be seeing the Checklist every morning. But the fourth formal member of the NSC would remain ignorant of each day’s most sensitive intelligence. Surprised, Lehman raised it with an NSC official at the White House, asking, “What about the vice president?” The reply was firm and final: “Under no circumstances!”
As 1964 began, presidential military aide Clifton began fearing for the future of presidential intelligence. He warned CIA officers that he had been able to get the Checklist to Johnson with only “some regularity,” a far cry from Kennedy’s deep engagement. He said Johnson was “not getting a steady feed of intelligence on world situations,” instead getting only what he or National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy could tell him orally when they saw him, which was not often. Clifton told them at one point that the president, who he said was a “painfully slow reader,” had not looked at any finished intelligence for the better part of a week. Johnson had tuned out. Clifton decided something had to change.
So in January he tasked the CIA with supplementing the Checklist with a simple, less frequent booklet that would include “the shortest possible review of highlights of the intelligence-gathering effort for the five-day period from Sunday to Thursday.” The CIA’s current intelligence officers stepped up with the new Current Intelligence Review, which allowed Clifton to update the president with minimum effort. Clifton told Lehman on January 10 that the Review had “worked like a charm” at breakfast with Johnson, who soon told Clifton to keep it coming in its current form because he found it “very valuable.”
This weekly offering reengaged the president with finished intelligence at a time when hopes for any real connection had dimmed. However, because the Review pulled together a full week’s worth of highlights into one document, Johnson found it even easier to push the Checklist to the bottom of his reading stack. So CIA analysts did what they should have done a year earlier, immediately after the easily slighted Johnson assumed the presidency: they gave him a new product that fit his reading habits, one he could truly call his own. They called it the President’s Daily Brief. The debut on December 1, 1964, of the PDB—or “the book,” as it has been called in CIA circles ever since—caught Johnson’s eye. It was now a full-sized document, more suitable for his late-night bedtime reading than the odd, roughly square shape of Kennedy’s Checklist.
The new product worked. Jack Valenti, one of Johnson’s closest aides, noted to Bundy, “Mac, the President likes this very much.” Busy analysts at the CIA felt even better months later when presidential special assistant Bill Moyers passed the word along that Johnson still continued to read the PDB “avidly.” PDBs from the first summer of the new publication’s existence show that the Checklist’s typical six to eight pages of relatively long articles had evolved into only two pages of text (which contained just three items on each page), plus annexes. The language in the PDB remained accessible and its supplemental graphics austere.
The PDB’s brevity and simplicity turned Johnson into a regular daily intelligence reader again. Other recipients also appreciated the change. Deputy Secretary of Defense Cyrus Vance told the CIA’s deputy director in February 1965 that while the Checklist had left him cold, the daily product now was “the most helpful document” he was seeing from the intelligence community.
The technology and scope of intelligence gathering and analysis have changed since the early 1960s. But the basics of writing for the president have not. CIA analysts still come to work each day having spent hours looking over the previous night’s information take related to their accounts—often the political, military, or economic situation in a particular country, sometimes a specific technological or transnational issue. The collected documents still include diplomatic cables from embassies and consulates around the globe, clandestine reports from the CIA’s recruited spies, intercepted foreign communications, and open-source material from newswires and major U.S. and international media. Although the transmission of the PDB has changed—with Barack Obama being the first president to receive the document electronically via a secure iPad—its primary goal has remained the same: truth to power, focused on what the president needs to know.