The President must demonstrate convincingly that his intelligence staff has his unfailing trust and respect
Most key leaders internationally receive briefings in some form or another from their intelligence chiefs.
Over the years, the President's Daily Brief has served every President most effectively.
Editor’s Note: David A. Andelman, editor emeritus of World Policy Journal and member of the board of contributors of USA Today, is the co-author, with the Count de Marenches, head of the DGSE, of “The Fourth World War: Diplomacy and Espionage the Age of Terrorism.” Follow him on Twitter @DavidAndelman. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.
Donald Trump doesn’t need to be briefed every day by his top intelligence professionals. Most of the other leading heads of state in the Western alliance do not receive daily briefs directly from their espionage and intelligence agencies. But there is a critical caveat.
The Pesident must demonstrate convincingly that they have his unfailing trust and respect – and that he has their back – at every turn. This is what Trump has not done, at least so far.
The CIA and the myriad other agencies that should make the American President the world’s best-informed head of state cannot become scapegoats for any bad decisions or ill-conceived instincts. The consequences would be altogether catastrophic for his presidency and for the very security of the United States.
At issue is an institution that dates back to the early days of the presidency of John F. Kennedy. Until June 1961, there was no regular, institutionalized system of contact between the President and his intelligence leaders.
On June 17, 1961, the President’s Intelligence Check List was born at the request of the President who’d been blindsided badly by the CIA-led Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba exactly two months earlier, one of the agency’s most catastrophic failures.
Known as the PICL (pronounced “pickle”), the briefing was central to Kennedy’s colossal success 16 months later during the Cuban Missile Crisis, when a well-informed and briefed President went nose-to-nose with Soviet Union leader Nikita Khrushchev and made the Russian blink.
The PICL was delivered in written form, small enough to fit in the president’s jacket pocket. Three years later, President Lyndon Johnson expanded the document and had it delivered each morning in person as the President’s Daily Brief.
Most key leaders internationally receive briefings in some form or another from their intelligence chiefs, but few have access to as regular or comprehensive a document as does the American President.
In Britain, the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) meets every Wednesday in Whitehall, though the Prime Minister is rarely present.
“The JIC produces papers which have very clear summaries and are never more than three or four sides of papers on topical intelligence, and they make what are called Key Judgments,” says Sir Richard Dearlove, veteran former head of the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6).
Absent a crisis, this system “works pretty efficiently,” Dearlove said.
During major crises, such as the war in Iraq, the 9/11 attacks and the invasion of Afghanistan, Dearlove said he would see the Prime Minister on most mornings – “usually the very first meeting of the day.”
But above all, Dearlove points out, when he needed to see the Prime Minister, it happened. “I had the right of access to the Prime Minister any time I wanted,” he concludes, “if I rang up and said, ‘I have to see you.’”
Other major Western intelligence officials have similar arrangements. The head of the French intelligence service, the DGSE, has direct and routine access to the President, whenever needed.
In Germany, the heads of the external intelligence service, the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND) and its internal counterpart, the BFV, meet weekly with the chief of staff of the chancellor’s office, a minister of cabinet rank, who in turn briefs Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Similar procedures are followed in most other European countries, according to senior intelligence officials with knowledge of their operations.
Chinese officials, said one Western specialist on China, awaken every day to intelligence briefings – though largely on what’s going on inside their country, a far greater day in, day out concern to them than most international developments.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, who of course came out of the intelligence world after years in the Soviet-era KGB, is different in almost every respect. Putin is “obsessed with getting all kinds of dossiers and reports on a daily basis, from several kinds of secret services (FSB, FSO, SVR),” said Mikhail Zygar, a leading chronicler of Putin and the Kremlin’s ruling elite, in an interview. “Plus everyone in his inner circle is pretty sure that Putin reads transcripts of their personal conversations on a daily basis.”
The key question is whether Donald Trump wants to risk being less well-informed than Putin or any other national leader with whom he may come in contact. If he puts himself in this position, he risks making decisions that may not be as well-grounded in reality as they might otherwise be. It is a most dangerous precedent.
Did Trump receive a briefing on the state of the Russian nuclear arsenal and its relative strength relative to the American arsenal before tweeting his apparent willingness to restart a nuclear arms race? Did he receive any intelligence on the already vast penetration of Israeli settlements into lands historically claimed by Palestinians before tweeting about the need for a UN veto on a measure to condemn their expansion?
Over the years, the PDB has served every President most effectively – a concise profile of the state of the world that morning, but much more as well. It is a way for the President to inform himself, easily and effectively. He can learn, in advance, of the black swan events that may be far over the distant horizon, but traveling rapidly. He can learn of synergies, or request elaboration that may uncover new and unheralded strengths or weaknesses among ourselves or our foes.
If Trump is worried that face-to-face briefings could reveal his own ignorance, he can ask for the PDB in a different format—in a daily video, for instance, or secure podcast. But some interaction with the intelligence community every day is vital.
Within a matter of days of arriving in the Oval Office, he will most likely need not only intelligence but help from the intelligence community. He has at his disposal the world’s greatest professionals who do not merit the insults he has heaped on them. Indeed, he must demonstrate his respect for the thousands of men and women who each day labor untiringly, often at great danger, to keep America, but especially the President, informed.
“It’s not just analysts, you have a whole digital network, you have spies out everywhere, you have covert actions going on in the field,” observes Jack Devine, a former director of operations for the CIA. “Are you disdaining them all?”
At the entrance to the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, is the Memorial Wall with 87 stars. None carries a name. Each marks a CIA officer who has given his or her life, anonymously, for their country.
If Trump seeks to politicize their efforts, if he focuses on the agency’s past mistakes rather than their vast, often unheralded successes, he risks destroying perhaps the most valuable defensive asset the United States possesses to keep our citizens safe. Once that bond of trust is broken, it is most difficult to regain.