Is America’s threat and warnings intelligence (referred to as “strategic intelligence”) working, or is it increasingly broken, divorced from reality? And how can that question even be asked at a time when national technical collections themselves are arguably so sophisticated, so pervasive and pragmatically so effective that they frighten some citizens? There is simply no doubt that intelligence collections are at an unprecedented level. If you want to dig into the true scope and reach of technical collections I can only refer you to Jeffrey Richelson’s most recent work on the US. Intelligence Community (it’s some 600 pages, and that’s really just a good overview).
The good news is that those capabilities allow us an unprecedented ability to monitor what foreign actors such as North Korea, Iran, Russia and China are actually doing. The question is whether or not the same confidence can be found in the overall intelligence “system” – “a set of things working together as parts of a mechanism or an interconnecting network”.
Modern strategic intelligence began with the onset of the Cold War, focused on assessing the Soviet Union and the likelihood and potential timing of preemptive warfare against the West. By January, 1948 a newly formed Joint Intelligence Committee was forecasting that open war with the Soviets could commence within a year. In its early years “warnings” intelligence was devoted almost entirely to the anticipation of military action by Communist bloc countries against the United States and its allies, or against other nations nominally part of the Western bloc – it was being developed to serve as a key decision making element for the President.
Cynthia Grabo, one of the earliest post-war practitioners of the specialty, wrote that President Truman was an avid reader of intelligence reports, yet he became confounded by conflicting opinions and assessments regarding the possibility that Stalin would move to take control of Berlin. At that point Truman pointedly asked who it was that was monitoring and consolidating all the intelligence being produced. He wanted someone to reconcile them all and give him a single, intelligence assessment. When told there was no mechanism to provide a unified opinion he became adamant that would change – and change quickly.
Given the challenge of inter-agency rivalry, it took several days – and some strong words from President Truman – for the committee to reach an estimate they could all accept. The ensuing Soviet blockade of Berlin kept the new committee at work updating their estimate for the remainder of 1948. After the formation of the Central Intelligence Agency an internal weekly Situation Summary began to be compiled; it was used by the CIA Director in personal briefings of President Truman. With the establishment of the CIA’s Office of Current Intelligence, that office began creating a daily summary which evolved into the Current Intelligence Bulletin, first issued in 1951.
President’s Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson were all avid consumers of intelligence materials, following his election President Kennedy requested that a new format for the daily report be developed, condensed to a smaller number of pages so that he could carry it with him for quick reference in discussions and decision making. President Johnson was also an avid consumer of intelligence and also directed revisions in the format, which continued virtually unchanged into contemporary times – the one obvious change being that President Obama request an electronic version that could be carried on a personal tablet device, giving him a form of portable reference similar to President Kennedy’s.
Samples of the intelligence checklists provided to President’s Kennedy and Johnson have now been released and are available for public review:
While the PDB is highly classified, portions of it have historically gone to the Secretaries of State, Defense and the president’s national security advisor. A more limited version (the National Intelligence Daily) is distributed more broadly including to select members of Congress. The material in the PDB represents the consolidation of thousands of intelligence professional’s work – with today’s resources this represents an almost unimaginable amount of intelligence collections.
The goal of the PDB briefings is not only to make the President aware of new intelligence regarding sensitive situations but to provide an opportunity for detailed discussion, and presidential direction on intelligence focus and priorities. Without a doubt, the president’s engagement with the PDB and with his intelligence briefs (historically conducted by the CIA director and now available from the Director of National Intelligence) provide a measure of how actively the Commander in Chief is involved with the intelligence community.
Of course each president has their own style as a consumer of intelligence, some prefer to spend extensive time reading while others want the active give an take of dialog in extended sessions – both President’s Kennedy and Obama appear to have been oriented towards reading while Johnson wanted a lively intelligence dialog. Presidents such as Nixon, Carter, and Reagan George W. Bush appear to have relied heavily on their National Security Advisors to research and filter the intelligence product for them – as well as establishing the priorities for follow-on briefings related to outstanding threats and warnings.
When a president is actively engaged with threats and warnings intelligence – and makes the right decisions on priorities – the process works well. In Surprise Attack (Chapter 16; “Shadow Boxing”), I describe how in two separate instances President Clinton and his national security staff engaged with new types of emerging terror threats, in both instances quick engagement and proactive changes in priorities neutralized actual threats – in the Bojinka Airlines bombing and the Millennium bombing plots of 1995 and 99.
Unfortunately, in 2001, with the intelligence community sounding alarms about impending attacks, the engagement process failed at both the level of the presidential briefings and the priority setting for staff dialogs on imminent threats and warnings. That story is far more complex than can be detailed here but ultimately the PDB which was involved in its earliest stages was released to the public – as was a White House response on the PDB itself.
What was not released in the White House statement were the failed efforts of the President’s special advisor on counter terrorism to gain access to raise the visibility of impending attacks or a special briefing given to President Bush at his ranch in Texas on August 6, 1961 (“Bin Laden Determined to Strike in the United States”).
The upshot of it all was that there was “no formal tasking” coming out of the intelligence briefings, no elevation of threat levels, no change in priorities or special White House pressure on the FBI or the CIA field offices (as there had been with the threat related to the Millennium plot of 1999) – and no new national security directives from the President’s office.
The attacks on America in 2001 illustrate the critical nature of threat and warnings intelligence as a total “closed loop” system. The first stage is collecting, analyzing and compiling extremely current information to provide to the decision makers. Completing the loop relies on the decision makers allocating the time and focus to engage with the intelligence on a daily basis, to change their priorities as it changes and to ensure that their own political priorities and concerns to not override the facts that are being provided to them. Which leads us back to the question of current threat and warnings intelligence in the United States.
If the reporting is accurate, President Trump is not an eager consumer of professional intelligence. Unlike the majority of his predecessors he rarely (if ever) reads the full President’s Daily Brief, relying only on oral briefings on selected topics.
On the other hand, some past presidents – LBJ and Richard Nixon being a prime examples – were not enthusiastic readers either, and reading does not translate into engagement. A more positive view of Trump’s engagement comes from CIA Director Pompeo:
You can read these articles and reach your own opinion in regard to the level of the president’s intelligence community engagement.
But beyond that there are much more objective measurements of how well the overall process is working – leading us to actual work products such as national security directives, presidential decision and study directives and White House proposals for security related legislation. Those are things that most definitely can be measured, and not only measured but matched to the threats being reported to the President and to Congress by the intelligence community. That should give us an indication of whether the full intelligence cycle is working – or whether there is evidence of the sorts of failures that, in retrospect, can now be seen to have begun to emerge during 2001.