Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Is there intelligent life in Langley?

Like many others, I was startled to learn about the Government Accountability Institute (toujours GAI, toujours GOP!) and its discovery that our president appears to have missed quite a lot of his daily intelligence meetings. Indeed, I had no clear idea that the meetings even existed—though who could ever forget George W. Bush and "All right, you've covered your ass now"? (Happy September 11, by the way!)
From NSPT4Kids.
I did know that Obama gets his President's Daily Brief (PDB) by iPad, and that that is supposed to be the finest product our intelligence services put out, and having to have a meeting about it every day seemed like a little bit of overkill, when you could always just read it and make a quick phone call if you had a question; and I wondered, idly, if the meetings had been instituted for a reading-challenged President Bush ("What do you mean you told me Osama was determined to attack?" "It was in the PDB! It was in the headline!").

This is not the case, but the facts are available, and almost as entertaining. The daily meetings were cooked up after the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan. Richard J. Kerr and Peter Dixon Davis, director and deputy director of the Office of Current Intelligence at the CIA, came up with the idea as they faced
another new administration, another foreign policy team, another group to which we had to prove ourselves all over again....
We knew that in the confusion of changing administrations, establishing daily intelligence support at top levels of a wary new leadership might just as likely be resisted as welcomed. At the same time, this new group valued intelligence; the question was whether they thought CIA was up to the task. How would we be received by a palace guard that at times had appeared downright hostile?
President Carter immediately put the president-elect on the receiving list for the PDB, and Richard Allen, the designated national security advisor for the incoming administration, established contact with Kerr and Davis, insisting that they work with him directly and not through the DCI. They had a number of meetings with Reagan when Reagan spent a week in Washington in mid-November, and more importantly perhaps meetings with the new vice president, George H.W. Bush, who naturally, as an ex-DCI himself, had a soft spot for the Agency.
Bush had ruminated on several occasions about the need to bring Reagan into the current analytic stream as quickly as possible. He felt it was imperative that the newly elected president receive daily briefings based on the PDB, and--even more important--that a professional intelligence officer be present to answer any questions, provide background information, and follow up on whatever intelligence needs Reagan might have. Bush knew from firsthand experience that filtering went on as an intelligence product moved through the White House staff and on to the President. He also knew that to make intelligence relevant the Agency needed regular feedback from its key customers.
It seemed a good opportunity, given Bush's candor and friendly disposition toward the Agency, to make a bold recommendation: because he was scheduled in a few hours to ride along with Reagan to Andrews Air Force Base, perhaps he might want to urge his new boss to request that such daily briefings be provided him personally during the period he remained in California pending the inauguration. Bush told Davis he would give it a try.
I really like the between-paragraphs sleight of hand where they're making a "bold recommendation" to Bush to arrange for what Bush has just said was "imperative" (how bold can it have been? Waiter says to customer, "May I make a bold suggestion? I'd like to bring you the item you ordered"). Kerr and Davis are likely hiding from themselves, as much as from us,  how much this story is about greed, for turf and for access.
From FamilyEducation.
Be that as it may, the proposal worked out, and Davis was summoned right away to Pacific Palisades to start the briefings, spending a week in California while Kerr did the editorial work in DC, and then switching. Now they don't even try to hide their glee:
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the briefing process was the relationship that developed between both of us, on the one hand, and those we briefed. Often during briefings, or while we waited during telephone calls or other visitations, we overheard conversations between Reagan or Bush and potential cabinet members or advisers. We listened to discussions of their strengths and weaknesses, complaints and personal exchanges that clearly were not meant for outsiders' ears....
Equally striking was the degree to which we were given a free hand during this two-month period of direct contact with a top leadership that would eventually include Secretary of Defense-designate Caspar Weinberger and Secretary of State-designate Alexander Haig as well as Reagan, Bush, and Allen. We had little supervision from officials within the CIA or the Carter administration.
Another interesting feature of this period was that, to our knowledge, Reagan, Bush, and Allen did not receive formal, regular briefings from any other part of the government. There were contacts with State and Defense, but nothing like the type of regular contact we had established. The lack of contact between us and William Casey, who was to become DCI, was also noteworthy. At most, Kerr would exchange "good morning" greetings with Bill Casey, to whom he had been introduced by Reagan.
Interesting indeed! And then after the inauguration, it just carried on:
By Inauguration Day, the daily briefing system was so well established that it seemed natural to all involved that it would simply continue. The question hardly arose; it seemed a fait accompli. At President Reagan's direction, the service was to be provided also to Secretary of State Haig and Secretary of Defense Weinberger. (George Shultz and William Clark became recipients when they replaced Haig and Allen, respectively.) The Agency had finally obtained the continuing, high-level access it had been seeking since 1961.
And on, and on, until evidently Barack Obama decided he was big enough to read the Brief sometimes without assistance.

What the intrepid briefers told President Reagan about Ayatollah Khomeini's key-shaped cake,  or Colonel North's adventurous method of funding Nicaragua's anti-democratic insurgency are not disclosed: this is an account only of the important matters, of who sat next to whom on the bus to Six Flags, and did she really give him his ring back?
“If President Obama were participating in his intelligence briefings on a regular basis then perhaps he would understand why people are so offended at his efforts to take sole credit for the killing of Osama bin Laden,” Cheney told The Daily Caller in an email through a spokeswoman.
No, if that's what they talk about—Cheney's feelings—then he's already going too often.
Eugene de Blaas, The Friendly Gossips, 1901. WikiPaintings.

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