Here's What Happens in the U.S. President's Daily Brief

By: John Donovan

President Harry S. Truman received the first ever President's Daily Brief on Feb. 15, 1946. In those days, it was called the Daily Summary. Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Image
President Harry S. Truman received the first ever President's Daily Brief on Feb. 15, 1946. In those days, it was called the Daily Summary. Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Image

The President's Daily Brief, by definition, is a tidy summation of what America's far-reaching intelligence community knows. Yet in its world-seeing scope, in its meticulous detail, in the collaborative year-round effort put forth by hundreds of analysts sifting through megabytes of information, the PDB — it's the government; of course it has an acronym — is anything but brief.

"It's hard to fully capture how much work goes into the PDB. This absolutely drives the whole intelligence community," says Tricia Bacon, who worked as an intelligence analyst and had her fingerprints on PDBs that landed on the desks of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. "It is a massive enterprise of energy and dedication."


So eyebrows jumped skyward within the intelligence community when the soon-to-be commander in chief dismissed daily intelligence briefings as, essentially, a waste of his valuable time.

"I'm, like, a smart person," President-elect Donald Trump said on Fox News (starts at minute 2:00) last weekend in explaining why he already had skipped several PDBs. "I don't have to be told the same thing and the same words every single day ... "

As the president-elect, Trump has every right not to be briefed, notes Bacon. Furthermore, when he becomes president in a few weeks, if he wants to make the PDB the President's Weekly Brief instead, he can. Though we'll need to change the acronym.

If Trump turns his back on a daily briefing, though, he'll be bucking history.

And, many people fear, inviting a ton of trouble.

The 411 on the Presidential Daily Briefing

Ever since Harry S. Truman first sat down with what was called the Daily Summary in February 1946, presidents have been reading a national intelligence report almost every day.

It's morphed a little and changed names; the Situation Summary, the Current Intelligence Bulletin, the Central Intelligence Bulletin. John F. Kennedy wanted a brief he could slip into his jacket pocket, so the intelligence community came up with the President's Intelligence Checklist — yep, the PICL. Lyndon Johnson came up with the PDB in 1964.

The concept, though, has remained the same.

"In the most basic way, it's a highly classified newspaper. Breaking events, breaking news, major issues that the president needs to be aware of," says Bacon, now an assistant professor in the School of Public Affairs at American University in Washington, D.C. "But then it's got the whole additional element to it. 'Is the president traveling, or meeting with a world leader?' It's designed to prepare the president for any of his upcoming meetings or trips or anyone he's hosting. It's really tailored to the president."

The PDB, according to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) — that's the agency that since 2004 has gathered intel from various agencies and synthesized it for the president in the PDB — can contain all sorts of intelligence on sticky situations anywhere in the world. The intel comes from many different sources. Along with the ODNI (part of the executive branch), 16 other entities contribute to the PDB as needed.

The big ones are represented, like the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Central Intelligence Agency. An office within the CIA partners with the ODNI in the final molding of the PDB.

Every branch of the armed forces has an intelligence arm that chips in, too. The Department of Homeland Security has a say, as does the Drug Enforcement Administration, the National Security Agency, the Department of State, the Department of the Treasury and the Department of Energy. The whole list of government contributors to the PDB is here.

On any given day, the PDB will have articles written by intelligence analysts, as well as graphics, photographs, notes and details of a practically unlimited number of sensitive scenarios across the world. The PDB might even include videos; in 2013, Obama requested that the PDB be transferred from paper into digital format.

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Presidents can request changes to the format of the President's Daily Brief. President Obama, for example, asked for the daily document to be communicated electronically.
Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

The PDB, then, is everything a president needs to know about the current world situation. As such, it is super-super confidential. Only the president lays out who gets copies. Only so many are offered. And they're all tracked under heavy security. Former White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer, who served under George W. Bush, called the PDB "the most highly sensitized classified document in the government."

Its purpose remains crystal-clear, too.

"In general, what intelligence is designed to do is ... to prevent strategic surprise and give decision-makers an edge. This is the product that is designed to do that for the president and the president primarily, if not alone," Bacon says. "The PDB is entirely geared toward giving the president a decision advantage."

Keeping the President Informed

What if the president doesn't want all that info, though? What if that person thinks they know it all?

What if the president even does know it all?

The PDB, Bacon says, can and does evolve during an administration. In the beginning, everything in the PDB may be painted in broader strokes to bring a new president up to speed. "It's a complex world," Bacon says. "Not everyone can be an expert on everything."

As a president demonstrates a grasp on the topics at hand, the PDB can change, always at the discretion of the president. The president can ask for more intel on a subject, or less. The PDB can become more detailed, more nuanced.

The key for any president to remember is that the PDB represents just the tip of a mountain of intelligence, what senior PDB staffers think the president needs to know (and what the president has asked for). But the rest of that intel is there for the taking, too. Just by asking.

So is scrapping the PDB in favor of a less-often, PDB-light really a good idea in the dangerous times in which we live?

"It's the most important product the intelligence community produces. They want to produce what the president needs and what he wants to see," Bacon says. "But just dismissing it? That seems like an underutilization of a really important resource."


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