Sept. 11 Presidential Daily Briefing Revealed Importance And Limits While Washington is sleeping, a team at CIA headquarters is making the final edits to a leather-bound book with the country's most sensitive intelligence secrets — the President's Daily Briefing.
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Sept. 11 Revealed The Importance And Limits Of The President's Daily Briefing

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Sept. 11 Revealed The Importance And Limits Of The President's Daily Briefing

Sept. 11 Revealed The Importance And Limits Of The President's Daily Briefing

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Early on the day of September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush received his presidential daily briefing - an intelligence update. President Harry Truman was the first to ask for this daily briefing. Many presidents since would not start their day without it, although some, including President Trump, have questioned the need for it. Here's NPR's Greg Myre.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: On September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush was visiting Sarasota Florida. At 8 a.m. sharp, the CIA's Michael Morrell delivered an intelligence briefing, as he did six days a week when the president was at home or on the road.

MICHAEL MORELL: Contrary to press reporting and myth, there was absolutely nothing in my briefing that had to do with terrorism that day.

MYRE: As Morrell concluded, Bush stepped into his waiting motorcade and headed to an elementary school, and that's when news of the terror attacks broke. Soon, they were on Air Force One, and the president wanted answers.

MORELL: And the president said to me, Michael, who did this?

MYRE: Morell didn't know but shared his strong suspicion.

MORELL: When we got to the end of the trail, I was absolutely confident, absolutely certain, that it would take us to bin Laden and al-Qaida.

MYRE: Morrell is retired from the CIA and now hosts the podcast "Intelligence Matters." This landmark day captured both the critical importance and the frustrating limits of the president's daily briefing, the PDB. This practice of briefing the president every morning began with Harry Truman in 1946. David Robarge is the CIA's chief historian.

DAVID ROBARGE: He was troubled that he was receiving these random reports from different departments and no one was telling him what was particularly more important than something else.

MYRE: The first 20 briefings delivered to Truman were just declassified. Former CIA Officer David Priess, a member of the briefing team in the early 2000s, wrote a history of the briefings called "The President's Book Of Secrets."

DAVID PRIESS: Many of the issues that President Truman was dealing with are still on the agenda today.

MYRE: Like trade disputes with China and tensions on the Korean peninsula and this familiar subject...

PRIESS: The very first general item for Harry Truman was about some false information that was being put out about Russia and the United States.

MYRE: The early briefings were brief indeed; most were short notes from U.S. ambassadors with little or no context. The modern version analyzes the potential pros and cons of U.S. actions abroad. It evolved under President John F. Kennedy, driven in part by the Bay of Pigs, the failed CIA operation to overthrow Cuba's Fidel Castro in 1961. Again, David Priess speaking via Skype.

PRIESS: We knew that John F. Kennedy was disappointed after the Bay of Pigs debacle early in his presidency. That helped spur this new intelligence product for him.

MYRE: One misperception is that all presidents are briefed face to face. But as Rodney Faraon, another former CIA briefer, says...

RODNEY FARAON: Every president receives their briefing differently.

MYRE: For Lyndon Johnson, it was bedtime reading. Richard Nixon allowed just one adviser to see it - Henry Kissinger. Barack Obama took it on his iPad and shared it with more than 30 others. Rodney Faraon's job was to study up on the document as it was finalized overnight, then go to the home of his boss, CIA Director George Tenet, at 6 a.m.

FARAON: I would be briefing him in the secure vehicle on his way from his house to either the White House or to CIA headquarters.

MYRE: It's a grueling job. Here's how Michael Morell recalls his briefings with Bush.

MORELL: I thought I was in graduate school preparing to go in to seven or eight exams every morning with somebody who's going to fire questions at you nonstop.

MYRE: President Trump initially questioned the need for a daily briefing, but Mike Pompeo, the CIA director before recently becoming secretary of state, says it's become part of the president's routine. Here's Pompeo in January.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MIKE POMPEO: Nearly every day, I get up, get ready, read the material that's been presented early in the morning and then trundle down to the White House.

MYRE: David Priess, the former briefer, cites an old CIA expression about briefing presidents and their advisers.

PRIESS: You can lead policymakers to intelligence, but you can't make them think.

MYRE: That, he says, is a timeless challenge.

Greg Myre, NPR News, Washington.

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