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How vital is the president’s daily intelligence briefing?

BY   December 13, 2016 at 5:05 PM EDT
U.S. President-elect Donald Trump rides the elevator at Trump Tower in Manhattan, New York City, U.S., December 6, 2016. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

President-elect Donald Trump rides the elevator at Trump Tower in New York City on December 6, 2016. Photo by REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

President Bill Clinton preferred to read his daily intelligence briefing in paper form. George W. Bush insisted on a daily in-person briefing. President Obama consumes his digitally, on a custom tablet.

Presidents have different styles when it comes to the briefing, or the President’s Daily Brief, a summary of classified information on national security issues compiled by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

But President-elect Donald Trump has taken an unprecedented approach: ignoring the briefing most days altogether. Instead, Trump has opted to receive the report roughly once per week since he won the election, a break from tradition for a president-elect.

Trump dismissed the daily briefings as repetitive and unnecessary in an interview with Fox News on Sunday, arguing that the report rarely changes from one day to the next. Trump said that “my generals” and the vice president-elect, Mike Pence, were receiving the daily briefings so he didn’t have to.

“You know, I’m, like, a smart person. I don’t have to be told the same thing in the same words every single day,” Trump said. He added, “But I do say, if something should change, let us know.”

The comments sparked an uproar, with critics claiming that Trump was neglecting a key part of his job. But some national security experts and intelligence officials said Trump was right — to a point.

WATCH: In debate on Russian interference and disinformation, there’s a lot we still don’t know

The daily briefing, which began after World War II under Harry Truman, can contain repetitive information on specific issues and regions around the world, according to several former officials who have worked on the briefing in the past.

“Sometimes it’s really boring and you spend two minutes on it. Sometimes it’s really interesting,” said Andrew Liepman, a former senior C.I.A official. Moreover, the brief represents just one facet of a nuanced relationship between the president and the intelligence community, Liepman said.

“I do think the PDB is an important factor in the relationship, but it’s not the only factor,” Liepman, who worked on the daily brief under several administrations, said. “It’s a mistake to say unless the president takes the PDB every day he’s not prepared to govern. That’s oversimplifying it.”

Presidents receive intelligence information in several other ways in addition to the daily briefing, said John McLaughlin, who served as the acting director of the C.I.A under George W. Bush in 2004.

“The intelligence community issues numerous publications every day,” said McLaughlin, also the C.I.A.’s deputy director from 2000 to 2004. “The foreign policy meetings in the White House situation room almost always begin with an intelligence briefing on the subjects of the day.”

In the end, he said, “presidents individually decide how they want to absorb their intelligence.”

Still, McLaughlin and others said the daily briefings were important. They give senior intelligence officials a chance to understand a president’s changing areas of interest and priorities. And they become critical in moments of crisis, when communication between the White House and intelligence agencies helps inform major foreign policy decisions.

“It’s a two-way communication,” said Paul Pillar, a former senior C.I.A. official, and a fellow at Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies. “Those briefings are highly valuable to the agencies for that reason.”

Still, former intelligence and national security experts said Trump’s decision to forgo the briefings, at least for now, was less concerning than his response to a report last week that the C.I.A. believes Russia interfered with the election to help Trump win the race.

News of the C.I.A.’s assessment came out on Friday, two days after President Obama ordered an intelligence review of the impact the hacking had on the U.S. election.

In October, a month before Election Day, the Department of Homeland Security and Office of the Director of National Intelligence issued a joint statement accusing the Russian government of orchestrating the hacking, which was directed at the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign.

Trump and his supporters dismissed the assessment. And on Sunday, Trump told Fox News that he didn’t believe the recent C.I.A. finding, and called it “ridiculous.” His transition team also blasted the report, saying it was prepared by the “same people who said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.”

Russia’s role in influencing the election “is one of the biggest things that’s happened in American foreign policy,” said James Jeffrey, a former deputy national security adviser under George W. Bush.

“That’s the really worrisome thing about all of this. The other things you can work through. It’s the reaction. We saw these things repeatedly during the campaign,” said Jeffrey, who served as the U.S. ambassador to Turkey from 2008 to 2010 and as the U.S. ambassador to Iraq from 2010 to 2012.

Russia’s role in influencing the election “is one of the biggest things that’s happened in American foreign policy.”

Some former officials defended Trump, and questioned why President Obama waited until the election was over to order the investigation.

“When Trump and his team questioned this they had every right in the world,” said Larry Johnson, a former C.I.A. and State Department counterterrorism official under Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. “Something’s not right here,” he added.

But others said the Trump transition’s response was an attack on the intelligence community, and could undermine the public’s confidence in agencies like the C.I.A. and F.B.I.

“Bringing back the Saddam stuff is painful, it’s ripping open a scab that’s largely healed,” Liepman said. “The confidence that the country had that the intelligence community is reliable and objective really took a hit” after the lead-up to the Iraq War, when intelligence agencies mistakenly advised George W. Bush that the Iraqi dictator had weapons of mass destruction.

“For 15 years, [intelligence agencies have] been trying to climb out of the hole. I hope they don’t get pushed back into that hole,” Liepman said.

McLaughlin said the president-elect’s relationship with intelligence officials was off to a bad start.

“It’s in everyone’s interest, his own and the intelligence community’s, to find a comfortable working relationship,” he said.

Correction: James Jeffrey served as the U.S. ambassador to Turkey from 2008 to 2010, in a period that spanned both the Bush and Obama administrations. Jeffrey was nominated for the post by President George W. Bush. He served as the U.S. ambassador to Iraq from 2010 to 2012, under President Obama.

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