Comment: What the PDB is and how it fits in Taliban bounties

All modern presidents have received the President’s Daily Brief; how they each used it differs.

By Michael Poznansky / The Washington Post

Last Friday, the New York Times reported that Russia’s military intelligence service, the GRU, secretly provided bounties to militants linked to the Taliban as an incentive to kill coalition forces in Afghanistan, including U.S. soldiers. Their assessment was based on various pieces of evidence, including interrogations as well as wire transfers from a GRU-controlled bank account to one linked to the Taliban.

The National Security Council apparently convened an interagency meeting in March to discuss options for how to respond, although the White House declined to pursue any of them. The revelations led to a rare bipartisan outcry, with members of Congress demanding answers. President Trump took to Twitter to defend himself, insisting he had not been briefed on the matter.

As Asfandyar Mir wrote for the Washington Post yesterday, there is still much we do not yet know, including Russia’s motivations, who authorized the covert operation, and the extent of any potential disagreement among intelligence agencies about the strength of evidence.

But one of the most interesting aspects are reports that the Taliban bounties story was in the President’s Daily Brief (PDB), a highly classified document containing the nation’s most sensitive secrets. Understanding what the PDB is and how past presidents approached it is important for separating what is fairly typical and what is unusual in this case.

What is the President’s Daily Brief?

Although presidents dating back to Harry Truman received some form of a routine intelligence briefing, Lyndon B. Johnson was the first to receive what is known as the President’s Daily Brief. According to David Priess, who wrote the history on the subject, the PDB “contains the most sensitive intelligence reporting and analysis in the world” with a focus only on that which “the president needs to know.” Toward that end, it aggregates information using a wide array of sources, from human intelligence to satellite imagery, intercepted electronic communications, and more.

The recent declassification of thousands of PDBs from the Kennedy administration (when it was called the President’s Intelligence Checklist) through the Ford administration offers a unique window into the sheer scale and scope of issues covered. They included updates on the Soviet Union conducting missile tests, clashes between North and South Korea along the demilitarized zone, efforts by Libya to challenge U.S. interests in the Arab world, and the status of grain production worldwide.

How do presidents use the PDB?

When we look at declassified PDBs, one thing that jumps out is the great variance in style and length. That’s no accident. As Priess meticulously details in “The President’s Book of Secrets,” different commanders in chief handled the PDB differently.

Some presidents kept the distribution of the PDB to a tight circle – Lyndon Johnson, for instance, allowed a limited number of individuals to access the highly classified document. His successor, Richard Nixon, at times shared the PDB only with Henry Kissinger.

Presidents Clinton and Obama fall on the other side of the spectrum. Under Clinton, the distribution of the PDB extended to more than two dozen officials at one point. Obama went even further, providing more than 30 individuals access to this information.

Historically, presidents and their vice presidents all read the PDB every day, but there’s variation in the frequency of in-person briefings. Both George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush held these regularly. Other presidents were less committed to face-to-face briefings. Gerald Ford and Bill Clinton started out with frequent briefings but later switched to simply reading the intel themselves.

Living with uncertainty and disagreement

Of course, the PDB is fundamentally a work of intelligence analysis; and the world of intelligence gathering is fraught with uncertainty and sometimes disagreement. This is why the analytic products the intelligence community generates, ranging from routine reports to the PDB and longer-term assessments like National Intelligence Estimates (NIE), typically describe the reliability of particular sources, clearly state existing levels of uncertainty and separate fact from inference.

There are many examples of this. The PDB from August 2001 on Osama bin Laden’s intentions to strike the U.S. noted at one point that it could not “corroborate some of the more sensational threat reporting” pertaining to aspects of the alleged plans. One of the most significant NIEs in recent memory — the intelligence community’s unclassified assessment of Russian interference in the 2016 election — flagged where some agencies had greater confidence in information than others.

To be sure, this process sometimes breaks down. The 2002 NIE on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction failed to clearly convey uncertainty and alternative explanations in a variety of places. The Silberman-Robb Commission created later recommended many reforms — including to the PDB — to ensure intelligence reports clearly state “doubts or nuance.” The Bush administration later announced it had adopted the vast majority of these changes.

What does this tell us about Trump and the intel on Taliban bounties?

First, despite White House claims that the uncertainty surrounding the intelligence and a lack of consensus is why Trump did not hear about the bounties, important developments like this would very likely make it into the PDB. As former intelligence officials have noted, uncertainty and disagreements can always be flagged for context.

Of course, each administration is different. Priess, a former CIA intelligence briefer and PDB expert, told me in an email conversation that “the PDB’s style and depth is tailored to each president. We don’t know how criteria might have changed for including assessments in this president’s PDB; including whether significant analytic disagreements are still allowed to be highlighted in the text, when applicable.”

Assume for the moment that this revelation did make it into the PDB, caveats and all. It wouldn’t necessarily be that unusual for Trump not to have an oral briefing. As noted, Ford, Clinton and Obama preferred to read the PDB every day. Given what we’ve learned about Trump’s reading habits (or lack thereof), the absence of an oral briefing on the Taliban bounties could mean he did not hear about this information at the time, despite having access to it.

As Loren DeJonge Schulman recently pointed out, this raises all sorts of interesting questions, including who in the administration was briefed. It is almost certainly the case that Vice President Pence as well as the senior-most national security officials would have also had access to the PDB containing information about Russian bounties.

Whether they would have subsequently raised the issue with Trump is harder to determine. It’s not clear whether Mike Pence, Mike Pompeo, Robert O’Brien and John Ratcliffe, all Trump loyalists, would have spoken up about something their boss may not have wanted to hear.

Michael Poznansky (@m_poznansky) is an assistant professor of international affairs and intelligence studies in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh, and a Non-Resident Fellow with the Modern War Institute at West Point during the 2019-20 academic year. For other analysis and commentary from The Monkey Cage, an independent blog anchored by political scientists from universities around the country, see www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/monkey-cage.

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