Book Notes #5: “The President’s Book of Secrets” (By David Priess)

by | Jun 18, 2022

This book is for folks interested in national security or presidential history. It’s rather narrow focus on the  President’s Daily Brief (PDB) is a device that reveals the personalities that shaped America’s security posture over the last many decades.

The President’s Book of Secrets
By David Priess

Here are 7 takeaways:

  • The Book
    The PDB is the daily briefing provided to the president. It includes a variety of topics pertinent to inform the president.

    What insiders simply call ‘the book’ represents the highest [mission fulfillment]: to provide accurate, timely, and objective information…to help the president defend the homeland and protect US interests abroad.

  • Rigorous process
    There is a rigorous editorial process for getting articles published in the book. Analysts draft articles in areas which they specialize. Their drafts are reviewed by editors and eventually approved by top officials. Here’s some gouge on what makes a good analyst:

    A good analyst of foreign affairs is, above all, a skeptic who must look beyond the obvious for deeper motives and implications.

  • Driven by engagement
    Each president interacted differently with his PDB briefers. President George Bush was very engaged and wanted to hear directly from briefers and analysts. His son President George W. Bush was also very engaged. However, President Bill Clinton met infrequently with briefers, instead choosing to read the book instead. Presidential engagement would inform what analysts would follow up on, as well as what they’d write about in future PDBs. President Johnson liked the product so much, he opted to receive it seven days a week.

    People were willing to work long hours and to come in at 3 o’clock in the morning because they knew damn well what they produced was read personally by the President immediately upon its delivery to the White House.

  • Evolving Technology
    The book has changed with the times. The book originated as a document known as the Checklist. It has largely been a written document. But analysts have also used in-person briefings to provide video updates. President Ronald Reagan appreciated these especially. President Barack Obama was the first to take his briefing on an iPad.

    [Reagan] wrote in June 1985 that the Gandhi film offered ‘a sense of having met him before.’

  • Objective analysis
    There is a sanctity about the book. Despite it being a book to brief the president, analysts and editors take great pains to ensure that what they write is not politically motivated.

    national security trumps partisanship when it comes to preparing the next commander in chief for his solemn duties.

  • Limited readership
    Though the book is meant “for the eyes of the president,” the PDB has often been read by cabinet officials and subordinates. When the PDB has a wide readership, analysts don’t put as many details regarding sources and methods. When the PDB has a more limited readership, more would end up in the document. Each President had a different distribution list for the PDB, which reveals the nature of who had power in their White House and who wasn’t in the loop.

    “And it was obvious that with a large circulation…[analysts] just deleted this material from the information they gave to me and the officials who needed it.” [said Jimmy Carter]

  • Make it simple
    Analysts stress good, clean writing. When you’re writing about complex national security issues, it’s important to use simple language to communicate effectively.

    “I wanted to extract the essence of the PDB,” [Jimmy] Carter says, “from the former wordy and rambling collection of non-essential and verbose text.”



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