EVENT RECAP: “Good Morning, Mr. President! A Peek Inside the President’s Daily Brief (PDB)”

September 2, 2020


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By Kevin McKenna

Speaking truth to power and avoiding the politicization of intelligence were the central themes of Thursday evening’s panel discussion co-hosted by the Michael V. Hayden Center for Intelligence, Policy, and International Security and the Lawfare Institute. Dean Mark Rozell of George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government, and the Hayden Center’s Executive Director Larry Pfeiffer kicked off the event with opening remarks before turning things over to the Lawfare Institute’s Chief Operating Officer David Priess—who served as the evening’s moderator. The panel featured an esteemed career intelligence analysts and PDB briefers, including former Director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) Robert Cardillo, former Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Intelligence and Analysis Leslie Ireland, and former Acting Director and Deputy Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)—and current Hayden Center distinguished fellow—Michael Morell.

Priess, a former PDB briefer himself and the author of the first authoritative book on the history of the PDB and its recipients, noted that “it’s fitting that we’re having this conversation today. This is, after all, the birthday of President Lyndon Johnson, who was the first president to receive … the President’s Daily Brief in 1964.”

After a short introduction to the history of the PDB, the panelists described the process by which the PDB is created, and how that process evolved throughout their respective careers in the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC). Morell and Ireland recalled the thrill they experienced as young intelligence analysts of having their work included in the PDB. Morell said, “the next morning you would get a copy back, and at the bottom it would say ‘for the President only,’ and I always got a shiver out of that.” Cardillo, who was appointed as the first Deputy Director of National Intelligence for Intelligence Integration in 2010, recalled the nightly task of reviewing the complete PDB before it was presented to the President the following morning. It was a responsibility he described as “daunting.”

On the topic of briefing the President, who is known as the IC’s first customer, Morell stressed the importance of establishing a personal rapport in order to speak truth to power. “I thought that was incredibly important to have some sort of bond between us for those difficult moments ahead… when he wouldn’t be a happy customer.” The job of communicating the conclusions of the IC to the President often puts the briefer in the position of being the bearer of bad news. Morell added, “it was our job to, free of politics and policy bias, to tell him what we thought and there would be moments where he wouldn’t like what he was hearing.” Ireland echoed the importance of keeping the PDB policy-neutral. She said that, as a briefer, “you have to be an honest broker of information.”

The event, initially planned for one hour, was extended for an additional thirty minutes due to the level of audience engagement during the question and answer period. During the extra time, the panelists discussed the format and structure of the PDB, the personal challenges of being a PDB briefer, and offered advice to students seeking a career in intelligence analysis.

Video of the full event can be found at the Hayden Center’s YouTube channel.

Kevin McKenna is a volunteer at the Hayden Center for Intelligence, Policy, and International Security and a current student in the Master’s in International Security program at the George Mason University Schar School of Policy and Government.