Daily intelligence briefs called of little value

Panel chairmen suggest shortcomings remain

April 03, 2005|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - The small group of top government officials who read the President's Daily Brief, a summary of the most timely and critical intelligence on threats to the United States, have told a presidential commission on intelligence that they find the highly classified document of little value, according to the commission's co-chairmen.

The officials told the commission that they had read the brief, known as the PDB, mainly for "defensive" purposes, Charles S. Robb, a former Virginia senator and governor, and Laurence H. Silberman, a senior federal judge, said in an interview Friday.

"They knew that was going to drive the president's schedule on a given day, and they had to be prepared for that reason," Robb said. "I cannot recall any particular current or former official saying that they believed the PDB was in and of itself that valuable to them. It was more of a defensive reading of the document."

The comments suggest that the grave shortcomings of the daily briefs before the Iraq war, detailed as part of the commission's sweeping 601-page indictment of the nation's intelligence agencies, have not been remedied despite recent efforts by the CIA to improve them.

Asked how the briefs had changed and whether they were still "more alarmist and less nuanced" than the underlying information warranted, as the commission concluded, the White House declined to comment.

Questions about the commission's critique and how the process had changed, directed to Stephen J. Hadley, the national security adviser, went unanswered. His spokesman, Frederick Jones, said the White House did not want to discuss a "privileged presidential document."

Since taking over from Condoleezza Rice, Hadley has said to his staff that he is disappointed in how prewar intelligence was handled and that he wants improvements. But the White House's refusal to describe the changes to the daily brief left some experts inside and outside the administration wondering whether the system is different from the one the commission criticized.

It is a potent issue because these days the briefs carry the latest intelligence on nuclear threats from Iran and North Korea, the activities of al-Qaida and emerging threats elsewhere.

The nine-member commission found that the quality of the intelligence agencies' reporting on threats suffered from the same shortage of reliable sources that damaged the reporting on Iraqi weapons. So the commission's finding that the PDB "likely conveyed a greater sense of certainty" than the data warranted is still a concern, Robb and Silberman said.

The quality of the brief may be particularly crucial in this administration because by the accounts of close aides and intelligence officials, President Bush is extremely interested in what the spy agencies tell him. He has been described by aides as asking frequent questions, sometimes calling in CIA officers for direct briefings. A senior intelligence official sits on the staff of the national security council to act as an intermediary, and to demand more information.

But none of that questioning pierced through the huge errors in the Iraq intelligence, the commission concluded. It said the briefs "left an impression of many corroborating reports where in fact there were very few sources." Some administration officials say Bush now demands to see some of the backup sourcing, but they could not say how often he hears dissenting views, and Hadley's office would not comment on that issue.

Bush receives an oral briefing on foreign intelligence and domestic security each morning from 8 to 8:45. The CIA briefer is usually accompanied by the agency's director, now Porter J. Goss.

Contrary to his image in some circles as a man with little appetite for detailed study, Bush asked early in his presidency that the brief be expanded and delivered in a loose-leaf notebook to include more than the 10 to 15 pages of finished intelligence analyses on current topics.

The commission reviewed about two years of the daily briefs in the period before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. It found the reports were "disastrously one-sided," giving the president a "daily drumbeat" of sensational headlines.

They noted that Goss had said that preparing, studying and delivering the daily brief took as much as six hours a day. Bush has said that John D. Negroponte, whom he has nominated to be director of national intelligence, would become his "primary briefer." But Robb and Silberman said they thought that would distract Negroponte from his main task of overseeing the 15 intelligence agencies and coordinating their work.

The commission chairmen suggested that intense competition among the intelligence agencies and their divisions to get their own reports into the president's brief often skewed the document.

In response to the commission's criticism, the agencies have begun to defend themselves. One former senior intelligence official said yesterday that "a little-known secret" of the commission's critique was that it borrowed heavily from the CIA's own internal review of the Iraqi weapons failure, conducted from July 2003 to May 2004.

The official said that since the review was completed last year, the team of analysts and editors who compile the brief each night had tried to make changes along the lines the commission recommended. Headlines are less sensational and "more neutral," the official said, and alternative views of other agencies are included more often.

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