Page last updated at 10:16 GMT, Thursday, 6 November 2008

Eyes only: Obama's spy briefing

By Adam Brookes
BBC News, Washington

CIA logo
The President's Daily Brief includes updates from CIA agents
President Clinton complained that most days he had read its contents elsewhere.

But President Bush took from it the message that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and posed an imminent threat. And he may have passed over its warnings of the threat posed by al-Qaeda.

The President's Daily Brief (PDB) occupies a fabled place in American politics.

It is an ultra-secret compilation of the latest intelligence presented to the President every morning.

And later on Thursday, Barack Obama will start to receive the PDB as president-elect.

Every evening, reports over the years tell us, the PDB is roughed out by intelligence officials.

Its contents tend towards the very topical:

  • The latest signals intercepts from the National Security Agency in Fort Meade, Maryland
  • The latest human intelligence relayed to the CIA's case officers by their agents, or to the operatives of the Defense Intelligence Agency
  • Satellite images garnered by the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency in Bethesda

Perhaps most importantly, the PDB sums up the conclusions about the state of the world as reached by analysts from across some 16 US intelligence agencies.

Dynamic process

The President could not possibly absorb the sum of the information gathered by the huge American intelligence apparatus.

FBI information indicates patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks
Excerpt from PDB
6 August 2001

The PDB must synthesise and distil key conclusions from a mass of data.

So the PDB is a highly selective document. And it must be written very carefully.

Intelligence staff continue to work on it overnight, as fresh reporting comes in.

In the morning the final version is reviewed by the Director for National Intelligence (DNI), or one of his staff.

The current DNI, Mike McConnell, likes to take the PDB to the White House and present it to the President, sources say.

He takes with him staff members who are specialists and can answer questions the President might have.

"It's a dynamic process," says Thomas Blanton, Director of the National Security Archive at George Washington University.

"The President hears what the intelligence people want him to know, and the intelligence people learn what the president is interested in."

Human intelligence

There are only a few PDBs - or portions of them - in the public domain. And those are mostly associated with highly controversial topics.

President Bush with National Security Agency Director Lt Gen Keith Alexander (L) and Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell (R) at the National Security Agency at Fort Meade
George Bush (C) may have passed over PDB warnings of al-Qaeda threats

Here is an extract from a 1998 PDB given to President Clinton. It is often used to illustrate that the US clearly understood the al-Qaeda threat years before President George W Bush took office:

"SUBJECT: Bin Laden Preparing to Hijack US Aircraft and Other Attacks

"Reporting [-] suggests Bin Laden and his allies are preparing for attacks in the US, including an aircraft hijacking to obtain the release of Shaykh 'Umar 'Abd al-Rahman, Ramzi Yousef, and Muhammad Sadiq 'Awda.

"One source quoted a senior member of the Gama'at al-Islamiyya (IG) saying that, as of late October, the IG had completed planning for an operation in the US on behalf of Bin Laden, but that the operation was on hold.

"A senior Bin Laden operative from Saudi Arabia was to visit IG counterparts in the US soon thereafter to discuss options-perhaps including an aircraft hijacking."

There is a lot of detail here, and references to individual items of HUMINT (human intelligence), though President Clinton was renowned for his love of just that.

But note the caveats: reports do not "tell", they merely "suggest".

Perhaps the most infamous PDB also concerns al-Qaeda. It went to President Bush on 6 August, 2001 - just over a month before the 11 September attacks on New York and Washington.

It contained the headline: "Bin Ladin determined to strike in the US".

It reads: "FBI information indicates patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks."

Extraordinarily prescient? Or vague and unhelpful?

'Selling' intelligence

The Silberman-Robb report on US intelligence capabilities of 2005 found "deficiencies" in the PDB. Its authors were scathing.

The daily reports seemed to be "selling" intelligence - in order to keep its customers, or at least the First Customer, interested
2005 Silberman-Robb report

They alleged that the format of the Brief and the way in which it was delivered helped inflate the sense of the threat posed by Iraq.

The "river of intelligence that flowed from the CIA to top policy makers over long periods of time" through the PDB was "misleading", said the report.

"The PDBs… with their attention-grabbing headlines and drumbeat of repetition, left an impression of many corroborating reports where in fact there were very few sources", it read.

"The daily reports seemed to be "selling" intelligence - in order to keep its customers, or at least the First Customer, interested."

Since then, there have been changes.

The PDB now looks less like a newsletter, sources say. It may include graphics and photographs.

Gone are those pithy headlines. And it is written in a way to reflect uncertainty or disagreement within the intelligence agencies.

Intercepts and photographs

So what might Barack Obama's first PDB have in it?

Well, it is not hard to imagine that there would be an evaluation of Russia's intentions regarding the positioning of its missiles, given President Medvedev's recent belligerent statements.

The latest from the Afghan-Pakistan border, intercepts and photographs from drones which reveal what militants are where, and the plans US intelligence has to target them, perhaps.

And did US warplanes really kill 37 civilians at a wedding party, as the Afghan government alleges?

And plenty more - that we will never know.

Print Sponsor

Electoral College votes

Winning post 270
Obama - Democrat
McCain - Republican
Select from the list below to view state level results.

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific