What happens to US intelligence when the president doesn't like to read?
Producing the President's Daily Brief degenerates to the level of a tabloid newsroom, with reporters - or in this case, intelligence analysts - scrambling to attract the chief's attention with sensational stories and headlines.
That, in a nutshell, is what happened during the administration of George W Bush, according to a report released last week by the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.
The incurious Bush was loathe to immerse himself in details. He also didn't want to hear about issues, such as climate change, which didn't interest him.
This shouldn't come as a big surprise. Bush's was, after all, an administration that failed to act on intelligence that al-Qaida was about to attack the US, proceeded with an Afghan adventure without an elementary knowledge of the political or human landscape, invaded Iraq on false pretenses, and bungled those overseas operations perhaps beyond repair.
The President's Daily Brief, or PDB, has been considered the premiere analytical product of the US intelligence community since 1964, when it was first presented to then-president Lyndon Johnson. But under Bush, the importance of the PDB soared as never before. Intelligence analysts understandably did what they could to get their issues before presidential eyes.
"A lot of recent media attention has focused on how the intelligence community collects information, and rightly so," report author Kenneth Lieberthal, director of Brookings' John L Thornton China Center, told ISN Security Watch. "This report focuses on what you do after you collect the information. How do you effectively milk your information in order to understand better the realities out there and how are you able to take that product and insert it into the policymaking process."
Under Bush, inserting intelligence into the policymaking process meant inserting it into the PDB, according to Lieberthal. Under Bush, the PDB was elevated "to an unprecedented level of importance," he said.
This, in turn had the effect of skewing intelligence production "away from deeper research and arms-length analysis to being driven by the latest attention-grabbing clandestine reports from the field."
Much as a newspaper reporter wants his or her story printed on page one, Bush's exaggerated reliance on the PDB made getting an item into that document a major career goal of intelligence analysts. "In the CIA," the report notes, "analysts who got an item into the PDB that President Bush found interesting or useful were rewarded, and the intelligence community as a whole came to see much of their raison d’être as centered on the PDB product each day."
These attitudes, goals and incentives had the effect of distorting the development of intelligence products to be consumed by the president and other senior policymakers.
"Analysts may define issues in sharper terms than warranted and use somewhat hyperbolic language in order to make the item sexy enough for inclusion in the PDB," the report said. "The PDB format allows only short items on specific topics. It therefore can skew the type of analysis done in the intelligence community away from the more complex and thoughtful work and presentations that are critical to policymaking."
In other words, the US intelligence community was, in some perverse way, feeding the president what he was able and willing to digest.
The tendency of analysts to emphasize information gleaned from classified sources was also problematic and stemmed from the same tabloid atmosphere of sensationalism. Analysts perceived items captured by clandestine means to add value to the story, and this make it more likely to be included in the PDB.
"But such information is often incomplete," said Lieberthal, "may be less timely than open source materials, lacks important context, and is occasionally of dubious reliability."
The primacy of the PDB has also had a negative impact on information sharing, an intelligence community value promoted since 9/11. "In some unfolding situations, IC analysts sometimes save useful information for PDB use, and only disseminate it to non-PDB policy users later," the report found. "Withholding less sensitive information for hours or days so it appears first in the PDB is dangerous."
If all this were not enough, the report also found that other aspects of US intelligence analysis to be severely wanting.
Of particular relevance to the ongoing fiascoes in Southwest Asia, the report found country knowledge among US intelligence analysts to be superficial. "Many ... lack the deep immersion in the country’s political system, economy, and modern history necessary to produce nuanced, insightful analytic products," the report said.
The National Intelligence Estimates, one of the major analytical products of the intelligence community, "are frequently too late, too long, and too detailed to serve high-level policy makers well," the report found. The quality of the estimates are also often compromised by the effort to achieve a unified position, "producing reports that can become the lowest common denominator statement that is able to obtain agreement" across the various segments of the intelligence community.
The Brookings report also found that, ever since the Iraq weapons of mass destruction (WMD) fiasco, US intelligence analysts have been gun shy; the analysts are actually refusing to do any analyzing. Instead, the report found "a tendency for analytical products to focus on amalgamating all potentially relevant data and to leave it largely to policy makers to draw the analytic conclusions."
The pendulum may now be swinging in the opposite direction under the Obama administration, as the Director of National Intelligence, Dennis Blair, announced that opportunity analysis - the identification by analysts of unanticipated windows of opportunity to advance US policies - would become a key component of intelligence products.
The Brookings report noted that presidents take briefings and use intelligence reports in a highly individualistic manner. No doubt, Obama is not relying on the PDB the way Bush did.
But for all of his reliance on the PDB, Bush didn't always pay heed. After all, what was the PDB headline on 6 August 2001? “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.”
About the author: Peter Buxbaum, a Washington-based independent journalist, has been writing about defense, security, business and technology for 15 years. His work has appeared in publications such as Fortune, Forbes, Chief Executive, Information Week, Defense Technology International, Homeland Security and Computerworld. His website is www.buxbaum1.com.
About this text: This text was first published by the International Relations and Security Network at the ETH Zurich under a Creative Commons license.