In this episode of Intelligence Matters, host Michael Morell interviews David Priess, former daily intelligence briefer, CIA officer and now chief operating officer of the Lawfare Institute, about the history, content and aim of the President’s Daily Brief (PDB), one of the intelligence community’s most valuable and highly classified products. Priess, whose book “The President’s Book of Secrets” delves into the history and recipients of the top-secret document, explains how it evolved, what goes into producing it, and how presidents have consumed it. Priess and Morell also discuss the process for briefing presidential candidates and concerns about the politicization of intelligence.
- On the intelligence briefings received by presidential candidates: “These briefings for candidates are classified, but they are overviews. They focus on global hotspots to inform the candidates about the major issues that are out there. The original purpose that Truman had to educate them in advance of possibly becoming president has morphed somewhat. Now, one of the goals, if not the primary goal, is to help the candidates not inadvertently say something galactically stupid on the campaign trail, not to help them politically, but something that would get in the way of U.S. foreign policy or get in the way of their own foreign policy should they win.”
- Relationship between the intelligence community and second-term Trump administration: “I’m very worried. I think the trend line is negative for the erosion of norms and institutions on everything from Justice Department prosecutorial independence to the role of intelligence to provide objective and timely analysis. All of those are under threat because of this very different presidency. I do think that the vast majority of intelligence officers who were not directly affected by it would continue to do what I just mentioned, would continue to serve the national security interests of the United States and uphold their oath by doing the best job they can, not allowing themselves to become politicized for the customers who will still value and respect that service.”
- Relationship between the intelligence community and potential Biden administration: “It appears that he was a respectful recipient of the intelligence information he had and with the portfolio that President Obama gave him and the license to weigh in on so many foreign policy issues, most of the signs are positive that Joe Biden understands the role of intelligence in a democratic society and understands how to use it effectively as a senior policymaker. We don’t know what all of his priorities would be, but it wouldn’t surprise me if one of those priorities would be to, in a sense re-establish the groundwork, reestablish the foundation.”
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INTELLIGENCE MATTERS – DAVID PRIESS
Producer: Paulina Smolinski
MICHAEL MORELL: David, welcome to Intelligence Matters. It is great to have you on the show. I’ve been wanting to do this for some time.
DAVID PRIESS: It’s a pleasure to join you. Thanks.
MICHAEL MORELL: So, David, we’re going to chat about how presidential candidates get intelligence and how president elects get their intelligence. But before we do that, I want to spend a little bit of time talking about your career at CIA. And so maybe the place to start is by asking you, how did you end up at the Central Intelligence Agency?
DAVID PRIESS: Yeah, it was a bit of a surprise to me, Michael, because here I was, a graduate student finishing up my PhD at Duke in International Relations with a focus on the Middle East. And I’d done two different trips out there for fieldwork in the previous years. And I thought maybe I don’t want to go into teaching at the university level, which a lot of PhD students will do. I wanted to try something in Washington, either a policy or an advocacy job. And at some academic conference, I met a gentleman whose business card said ‘Scholar in Residence U.S. government’, which I didn’t think twice about at the time.
And I expressed to him my desire to do something different. And he said let me think about it, give me a copy of your CV and let me think about it. And the next day I got a call from the Central Intelligence Agency, after which I learned, of course, that he was a scholar in residence for the CIA and the process moved relatively quickly. They interviewed me. I got the job, and it went from there.
MICHAEL MORELL: When did you start?
DAVID PRIESS: That process was in 1997. And I believe I started the very first EOD or entrance on duty class of 1998.
MICHAEL MORELL: And walk us through, David, your assignments as an analyst and including your time as a briefer.
DAVID PRIESS: I worked primarily as an analyst, although I did have a couple of stints working on operational issues, mostly on Middle East and counterterrorist issues, the latter working in the counterterrorist center both before and after September 11th. But probably the best two positions I had in the agency were, number one, as a manager of analysts. I just love the job of developing new analysts, mentoring them, getting them the resources they needed to do things up to and including going down and briefing the president. And I was managing a unit on a major country in the Middle East that had plenty of contact with the president and other senior officials. And that was just a really affirming experience.
And then, as you mentioned, a briefer job. I was on the president’s daily brief briefing team. I think right around the time you stopped briefing President Bush was when they made the selection that after 9/11, we are going to have a full time, full term PDB briefer for the attorney general and the FBI director. And I was the first person in that job. So for a little more than a year, taking the PDB downtown every day to those two or on the occasional days that both of them head off or we’re not taking a briefing. I was a glutton for punishment and would substitute for one of the other briefers who wanted a day off. So that would take me with the PDB into the White House or, or elsewhere.
And I have to say, and you’ve said some things that imply this as well, that there’s really no better job at the agency. Because people talk about the paramilitary operations as the tip of the spear of intelligence. But if you think about the overall intelligence enterprise, the tip of the spear really is delivering the best information and insight informed by intelligence sources to the decision makers. And that’s really what the PDB briefing job is all about.
MICHAEL MORELL: Why did you decide to leave the agency ultimately?
DAVID PRIESS: A couple of factors, push and pull factors. On the one hand, I was I was doing well and flattered that people were thinking of me in line for a career, probably in the same progression as yours, which is successfully moving into other management positions. But I didn’t like that the talk about it had shifted from ‘David. What do you want to do.’ to ‘David here’s what we’re going to want you to do.’ And I had just enough of a millennial streak in me before we had the term millennial that I certainly felt like that doesn’t seem like fun. I want to do this, this, and this, which I had been blessed to do in my career. Doing things, including a rotation at the State Department, doing policy for a year that I really wanted to do.
The other part of it was the fact that even though it’s a very large enterprise with a lot of different things to do, there were certain things I suddenly had an itch to do that would have been harder to do on the inside. One of those is writing books. You and I both know people who, while they were employed at CIA, did write books on their subject matter. That’s extraordinarily hard to do.
And it would have been more difficult to do what I did afterwards. Also, the idea of running or helping to run an entire business when you’re a manager at the CIA, if you’re in a good work unit, you do have responsibility for a range of things and you do take ownership of it. But you always know that you have many, many thousands of other people who also co-own that organization on behalf of the American people. And the experience of actually helping to run a small business where you actually are responsible for everything was appealing. And so getting outside enabled me to have some of those experiences up to and including what I’ve been doing for the last two years at the Lawfare Institute.
MICHAEL MORELL: One of the things that you do when you leave is you write this book called The President’s Book of Secrets. What gave you the idea? And then tell us a little bit about the book.
DAVID PRIESS: Which I will point out an enterprising young man named Michael Morell did speak to me for. So thank you for your insight and sharing your experiences. The idea went back to when I was selected as a PDB briefer. I remember having the thought and possibly expressing in a naive way during my interview for that job that it really would be nice to see the handbook, you know, the standard operating procedures for briefers to know how to handle certain situations based on the institutional history of decades of doing these level of briefings. And I do remember getting some rolled eyes and some laughter because there is no such thing.
MICHAEL MORELL: It’s deep end of the pool stuff.
DAVID PRIESS: It’s very much on the job. Learn as you do it. We select people as briefers because of their judgment, I was told. So use it. I said, OK, that’s fine. But it would have been useful to know what had happened in the 1960s, 70s, 80s and then up through the 90s in terms of what mistakes others had made. So I didn’t repeat the same mistake or what things had generally gone well so that I could build on the experiences of others. That was always in my head.
And then after I had left and I was doing some teaching, I realized that there were a lot of good sources out there on this most sacred of things within the analytic enterprise, the PDB. And once I started talking to people, all of the previous administrations, presidents, vice presidents and CIA directors opened up in interviews and wanted to talk about it. And I thought that this was a story the American people should see about how this process apolitically works. And it was a story that would actually help other people coming into the intelligence business understand the foundation of the work they were doing at the time.
MICHAEL MORELL: Did you find it easy to get it cleared?
DAVID PRIESS: I have to say that it was easy, but because of the way that I did it. And that’s not to pat myself on the back. I did it this way out of necessity. I wrote a chronological book. I was writing about the history, going back a little bit to the 1940s, but really picking up in the 1960s. There were very discrete parts of that. So I could write about John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson and their interactions with intelligence. I could write those chapters while I was still doing the research and the interviews for people during the Bill Clinton and the George W. Bush administrations.
And I asked the PRB, the publication review board, as it was called then, would it be possible for me not to submit the complete manuscript, but to submit it in parts such that you’ll get two or three chapters at a time while I work on the others and you can process it. Basically to work in a more efficient way. They kindly agreed. And that meant that if two or three chapters took many months to clear, as they did, I could be working on other parts of the project.
But you’re right, there still is that final obstacle. And at the end there was a bit of trouble getting the final parts cleared. Even though there was nothing objectively classified. There were some sensitivities to even mentioning the current administration, which at the time was the Obama administration.
Later on, the DNI and principal deputy DNI have said very flattering things about the book. But at the time, they certainly were in a position where they didn’t want anything to make it look like the intelligence community was getting in the way of White House equities involving intelligence.
MICHAEL MORELL: Let’s chat about the intelligence support that nominees for the president and the vice president get intelligence and get briefed. And then later, we’ll talk about the support that a president elect and vice president elect get. So what kind of intelligence support does a president and vice presidential nominee get? What does that look like? How has it changed over time?
DAVID PRIESS: This is funny because until 2016 and perhaps even now, it’s a tradition that most Americans don’t know about. And yet it’s one of the longest standing national security traditions we have being a relatively young country. It goes back to 1952 when Dwight Eisenhower was coming into office, but we didn’t know that yet. There was still an election to be had and Harry Truman was the president. And you’ll recall he came into the presidency all of a sudden when Franklin Roosevelt died. And Truman felt relatively unprepared, certainly without the deep foundation of intelligence and national security that he would need to suddenly be commander in chief during the middle of a war.
And he resolved in 1952 that his successors should not feel so adrift when they took office. Now, it helped that Dwight Eisenhower was one of the candidates who had been supreme allied commander and certainly understood the role of intelligence, but he’d been away from that for a bit. The other candidate was Adlai Stevenson, and he had no experience with national level intelligence. So Dwight Eisenhower offered to both candidates classified briefings to bring them up to speed on the world situation.
And that tradition has continued ever since 1952. A couple of times candidates have not taken the briefings either because of scheduling reasons or they felt they didn’t need them. Funny case in 1984. You’ll recall Walter Mondale was running against Ronald Reagan. Years later, when asked why he did not take one of these briefings, Walter Mondale said he didn’t remember, but probably because he didn’t think he had a chance to win anyway. And he just didn’t take that stuff seriously at the time.
Kind of odd for a former member of the Intelligence Committee in the Senate, but the tradition has continued. Now, we shouldn’t conflate these briefings with the presidential briefings that get more attention, which is the briefings of the president’s daily brief that each acting current president gets along with other members of his or her administration.
These briefings for candidates are classified, but they are overviews. They focus on global hotspots to inform the candidates about the major issues that are out there. The original purpose that Truman had to educate them in advance of possibly becoming president has morphed somewhat. Now, one of the goals, if not the primary goal, is to help the candidates not inadvertently say something galactically stupid on the campaign trail, not to help them politically, but something that would get in the way of U.S. foreign policy or get in the way of their own foreign policy should they win.
And it was, in fact, this reason that Jimmy Carter cited as the real value of getting these briefings during the campaign. He said he did not want to say anything that inadvertently would make things more difficult for the incumbent president and his opponent, Gerald Ford, or would box him in when he became president, which in fact he did based on that election in 1976.
MICHAEL MORELL: And are we talking about one briefing here or are we talking about a series of briefings over a period of time? What do they actually look like?
DAVID PRIESS: It depends on the candidate, depends on the year. Some candidates have taken one briefing, in some cases rather short, and treated it almost as a check box exercise. Other candidates have gone all in. Jimmy Carter, again, is probably the ultimate example of this because the intelligence briefing tradition for candidates is linked to the nominating conventions, because that’s when the major parties reveal who their candidates are and that’s when they are officially the nominee for president. Jimmy Carter jumped the gun. He actually requested that his briefings start before he formally got nominated to be the Democratic presidential candidate.
And the intelligence community agreed. They sent the Director of National Intelligence, back then called the Director of Central Intelligence, a guy named George H.W. Bush, they sent him to talk to Jimmy Carter and get that ball rolling. And he took briefing after briefing during the campaign. It’s a little more institutionalized now. That is, it’s been taken over by the office of the director of National Intelligence instead of being run by the CIA. And there is more procedure behind it. But it still is up to each candidate. They do not have to take these briefings. And technically, they don’t have to be offered these briefings because they are a courtesy of the current administration to the candidates. And there is no law requiring that the incumbent president offer these briefings to the president and usually also to the vice presidential nominees as well. There’s nothing requiring that they do so.
MICHAEL MORELL: You mentioned earlier that that the focus of these briefings is on the important sweeping judgments on key issues. Is there any discussion in these briefings of sources and methods, how the intelligence community collects intelligence or any discussion of CIA covert action, the more sensitive materials?
DAVID PRIESS: For the presidential candidates, generally no. They are not set up to do that. These are overview briefings. They can have classified information, but they’re not containing top secret code word sources and methods information. They aren’t supposed to talk about details of covert action. As a general rule, these are a little bit more generic than that. They can get very specific on particular countries, but they’re not going to tell the candidates the names of spies collecting this information or anything like that.
I do say generally, however, because it is a human process, and it is up to the personality and the judgment of the person giving the briefing. So you have had directors of Central Intelligence in the past who were going and briefing some of these nominees or their designees to do so, who would sometimes open the book a little bit more. And one of those cases was the one I cited earlier of George H.W. Bush briefing Jimmy Carter. And even when he was just a nominee, Bush had opened up quite a bit about the intelligence business, not just overviews about the politics of the Soviet Union or the military of China. But generally, the idea is to keep it limited because, face it, one of these people is going to lose. And you don’t want to open up all of the most classified secrets of the government to someone who is going to lose. You want to give them enough that they’ll be prepared if they win.
MICHAEL MORELL: You also mentioned that these typically happen after the nominating conventions. Do we know yet whether Joe Biden has received his intelligence briefing?
DAVID PRIESS: I haven’t seen any news about it, and that cuts both ways. The first way is it suggests he hasn’t had them yet because the campaigns are now covered so extensively that it’s unlikely Joe Biden would sneeze and we wouldn’t hear about it. On the other hand, they may just be keeping it quiet and trying to keep it from becoming politicized.
2016 was the first campaign when these briefings became the subject of headlines. This was because some Democrats said Donald Trump should not get these traditional briefings that every other candidate since 1952 has been offered because he is constitutionally unable not to say what he thinks and he might just blurt out classified information. At the same time. You had people up to and including Speaker Paul Ryan saying Hillary Clinton should not be getting these briefings because she can’t be trusted with classified information because she had some classified emails on her personal email.
So it hit headlines because of that. But the briefings did go on. Each candidate, I believe, received two briefings and there weren’t any leaks or spillage because of it. Will they happen this year? Usually they would have started by now. Because the conventions were delayed, it’s possible Biden put it off. It’s also possible Biden feels he doesn’t need them. He was, after all, vice president and PDB recipient for eight years and something like 30 years on foreign relations or intelligence committees before that. If he has received them, it’s not in his interest to go out and blab what was in those briefings anyway.
MICHAEL MORELL: Let’s switch to the intelligence community supporting a president elect. Walk us through how that works, what the big muscle movements are there.
DAVID PRIESS: A dramatic thing happens once the results of the election is known. And it’s a funny thing because technically there is no president elect until you actually have the Electoral College meet. But that is not the bar that is used for shifting things on the intelligence front. The intelligence front is shifted when there is a known result. Usually that’s been election night. Obviously, we’ve had some years like 2000 when that wasn’t the case. But more often than not, on election night, you know who the next president will be. What has happened since 1968, which was the first transition year in which there was a president’s daily brief, is the current president has authorized the intelligence community to start briefing the president elect on the president’s daily brief immediately to start getting them up to speed because of our relatively short roughly two month transition period.
Most presidents have taken advantage of this and started to read the PDB, usually with an intelligence community briefer assigned to him during that transition. The oddity of all of it is the way it started was different. President Johnson offered it to President Nixon in 1968, and by all measures, President Nixon should have loved it. He was a former vice president for eight years who loved national security topics. He had certainly been involved in foreign policy as a senator, and yet he did not read the PDBs. He did not take a single face to face briefing from a CIA briefer during the transition. It may have been because he held a bit of a grudge. He always believed that the CIA had it out for him and they actually helped John Kennedy during the 1960 presidential election. But either way, the intelligence community didn’t really crack the nut that was Richard Nixon.
They did the second best thing, which is they briefed Henry Kissinger, the person who would become his national security adviser. But after that, during the transitions, presidents generally have received the PDB part of that. It comes with a briefer and that relationship between the usually CIA briefer and the president elect has had several functions. One, of course, is it gets the president up to speed, it starts getting classified information, including much more highly sensitive information to help these people who sometimes are governors of states who have never seen classified information before, prepare for the job that they’re inheriting.
But it also has a purpose in the background, which led to the title of a great book on this by John Helgerson. He called it, ‘Getting to Know the President.’ That is, it’s a process by which the intelligence community can learn. What are this president’s preferences? What are the topics they’re most focused on? What are the things that this president wants to see or not see even in the formatting of the products that we hand to him? It’s a way of finding out what it is we can do better to serve the commander in chief as soon as he becomes commander in chief.
There are several parts of this. One is the PDB itself. You have to remember until inauguration, the president’s daily brief is the current president’s PDB, not the incoming president’s.
So the president elect is looking at it, thinking, what are they talking about? Because in almost any administrations’ arc, you’re going to have very granular, detailed stories about specific slices of foreign policy. Somebody coming in doesn’t have the back story. So often the briefer will bring in supplemental material. It could be transition memos and other prepared hand holders to connect the president elect to the current intelligence to show how we got to where we are here. It could be other finished intelligence products other than the PDB to fill out the story. Or it could be ad hoc memos and briefings that the president-elect requests or that the briefer says he’s just not getting it. So let me offer up an expert briefing for somebody. I’ll go back to 1992 when President Clinton had been governor of Arkansas and suddenly was inheriting the presidency. He ended up getting very specific memos to supplement the PDB on issues like Haiti, Bosnia, Somalia, basically the issues he thought he would be facing as policy issues right away when he took office.
MICHAEL MORELL: You mentioned that that that Henry Kissinger received the PDB during that transition period. Generally, who gets to see the PDB on the president elect’s team? How does that work?
DAVID PRIESS: This has evolved a bit over time. There were no hard and fast rules. But what seems to be the tradition now is the president and the vice president elect as constitutional officers, they can start getting the highest level classified information as soon as the current president allows them to. And all the presidents have done this. All the presidents have said the president elect and the vice president elect can start getting the president’s daily brief and other classified information as they see fit. The other officers. There have been some variances over time, but the pattern in recent elections has been that when senior administration officials for the top national security positions have been- not nominated because technically they don’t get nominated until the president is in office. But when they’ve been named, when they have been announced as the hopefully future secretary of state, secretary of defense, and national security adviser, not a confirmed position, but one that will definitely take shape after inauguration.
When those power positions have been named. The tradition has been then they can start seeing the president’s daily brief as well. Most of them do this because they want to get up to speed. Some do not in the transition period. For Barack Obama, for example, coming into office, Secretary of State designate Hillary Clinton was offered the PDB but decided to start reading it upon assuming the job instead of taking a briefing every day with it. The presidents themselves, as presidents elect have usually taken the opportunity for them and their vice presidents to start taking briefings on the PDB daily.
MICHAEL MORELL: There’s a particular book that we have done over time, it’s a book of short biographies on world leaders who may call a president elect to congratulate him or her. Talk about that.
DAVID PRIESS: There’s really two huge areas that we haven’t touched on by focusing so much on the finished intelligence of world hotspots. And one is just that. One is the often unclassified but sometimes classified profiles of world leaders and transition information to help the president elect with the huge amount of phone calls that they will be getting to congratulate them, but also to prep them for the visits they will make and the visits they will receive in the early weeks of the presidency.
You can imagine there might be a governor of a state or a senator or representative or a businessman who is elected who has never had interaction with the president of name your country here. What the purpose of this briefing material is to get that president elect able to have a productive, fruitful conversation, not about policy. The intelligence briefing material doesn’t tell the president what to say on policy issues, but offers things about the personality of the leader, perhaps the education, perhaps the hobbies and interests, and a brief review of some of that foreign leaders main issues, the things they are most likely to bring up initially with an incoming president. This really gets the president elect up to speed so that they can be more efficient in those calls. But also lay the groundwork for effective relationships when they become president.
This has taken different shapes over the years. Now it tends to be an actual transition book with lots of information, all in one place for the president elect to use in decades past, sometimes they were individual memos or note cards based on what the president elect said. This is the leader I want information on. Don’t give me a book full of things about the president of the Gambia. I’m not going to need that. But I am supposed to talk next week to the president of Mexico. What do you got? So that’s one big area that supplements the PDB and other materials.
The other one is operations. In this conversation, we haven’t talked about the operational side of the CIA, but the intelligence community does a lot of operations that people don’t know about, even from those candidate briefings we discussed earlier. So the intelligence briefers during this transition process will get the president up to speed on major issues concerning the operations of the agency, the Central Intelligence Agency, most of all, but then also brief them on covert action, because there are at any given time several different presidential findings in action regarding covert activities that have been approved by the president.
Those are the current president’s covert action programs. They’re not the CIA’s covert action programs. CIA may execute them, but they are the president’s covert action programs. That changes as soon as the oath of office takes effect. And we have a new president. Suddenly those are the new president’s covert actions. And if that new president doesn’t like one of those covert actions, isn’t convinced about the merits of it, they can end it. And in fact, some presidents have. Jimmy Carter famously, he stopped at least one of the covert action programs soon after taking office in 1981 based on briefings he had received about them back in December. So it gives the president’s time to think about the covert action, to talk to their advisors about it and decide, is this something that we want as part of our overall policy when we take office. And then they can choose whether or not to have that as part of their program.
MICHAEL MORELL: How you think the intelligence community has fared in the Trump administration. How would you assess that?
DAVID PRIESS: Overall, I couldn’t be more proud of my former colleagues in the intelligence community because the pressures they are facing just from the overall environment, if not individually, are huge. Usually you don’t have a president who is publicly chastising his own intelligence agencies or publicly undermining conclusions they have reached that have come out in an unclassified format or in some cases classified formats. That’s a hard thing to do to see what the president did. Speaking in front of the memorial wall at CIA, for example, in his first visit to CIA right after inauguration, and to hear him stand up in Helsinki and appear to take the side of Vladimir Putin over his own analysts. That’s a hard thing to do.
But I got to say. I’m proud of the fact that everyone I know who’s in the business and I’m sure most of the people you talk to, they’re putting their heads down and they’re doing the work that is they are still getting intelligence analysis to the customers who can use it. And they’re doing it without fanfare and without attention. Maybe the president has a very contentious relationship, especially on a few key issues, that he simply doesn’t like the judgments he’s hearing. OK, but for the many, many other people in the intelligence community who are serving assistant secretaries of state, the deputy secretary of defense, the desk officer at the Treasury Department, military commanders around the world, they’re still doing their jobs on their accounts to make sure that those people who are making decisions have the best analysis they can get to make these tough decisions. And I’m proud of the work that the intelligence community is doing in all those ways that we’re not hearing about because they’re just not as sexy as hearing about these clashes at the highest levels.
MICHAEL MORELL: Are you optimistic that in a second Trump term you’d be able to say the same, or are you worried?
DAVID PRIESS: I’m very worried. I think the trend line is negative for the erosion of norms and institutions on everything from Justice Department prosecutorial independence to the role of intelligence to provide objective and timely analysis. All of those are under threat because of this very different presidency. I do think that the vast majority of intelligence officers who were not directly affected by it would continue to do what I just mentioned, would continue to serve the national security interests of the United States and uphold their oath by doing the best job they can, not allowing themselves to become politicized for the customers who will still value and respect that service. At the presidential level, I think it would get much harder because any guardrails that the president does feel towards protecting these norms and institutions, a second term would be much more challenging for those guardrails.
MICHAEL MORELL: Do you have a sense of what a President Biden’s relationship might look like with the intelligence community and what he may look like as an intelligence consumer?
DAVID PRIESS: Let’s do a job of intelligence analysis on this. We don’t have the best evidence, which is Joe Biden himself saying and backing up with some kind of documentation or evidence precisely what he would do on every front of intelligence policy relations. Short of that, what do you do as an analyst? You look for relevant information. You look for background, you look for experiences, and you look for the, if you will, the tea leaves that you can read around that person. And most of the signs here are pretty good for intelligence policy relations.
First, you can look for the person and their track record with intelligence. Is this somebody who has a track record for either disregarding intelligence completely or, not challenging intelligence because that’s healthy, but challenging the very purpose of intelligence and undermining it. And that’s just not Joe Biden. What we’ve seen from Joe Biden’s experience overseeing the intelligence community, from Capitol Hill, from serving on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and being a certainly more prolific recipient of intelligence analysis than many other members of Congress. He treated intelligence with respect and seems to have used it effectively.
Then he was vice president for eight years and there were no intelligence scandals involving Joe Biden. It appears that he was a respectful recipient of the intelligence information he had and with the portfolio that President Obama gave him and the license to weigh in on so many foreign policy issues. Most of the signs are positive that Joe Biden understands the role of intelligence in a democratic society and understands how to use it effectively as a senior policymaker. We don’t know what all of his priorities would be, but it wouldn’t surprise me if one of those priorities would be to, in a sense re-establish the groundwork reestablish the foundation. To make clear this is how intelligence will be briefed to policymakers. This is how policymakers will respond if they don’t like the intelligence in a constructive and probably in a private way, rather than taking it to the press.
MICHAEL MORELL: I just want to take that last point and just emphasize, presidents don’t have to agree with what the intelligence community is telling them. Correct?
DAVID PRIESS: It’s healthier if they don’t. You can have an engaged president who challenges intelligence on a daily basis. One of the best examples of this goes back to George H.W. Bush when he was president and before that vice president, he was famous for challenging the briefings he was getting, sometimes even making bets with the intelligence briefer about the outcome of a foreign election or something else that was in the analysis that day. But that doesn’t need to be a negative thing. That can mean that the president wants better evidence before he makes a tough judgment. It can be that the president doesn’t quite buy the logic that the analysis is using to connect unknowns. It can be that they feel like alternative explanations have not been explored well enough. And that is a good role for a president or any other customer of intelligence to push the intelligence community to work harder and to let them know that their analysis is being valued. Because if you don’t value the intelligence analysis, why bother pushing back against it and asking for more detail.