Daily Intelligence Briefings Are Vague, Officials Say

SCOTT SHANE and DAVID E. SANGER

New York Times

April 3, 2005

WASHINGTON, April 2 - 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, 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 read the brief, known as the P.D.B., 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 on 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," Mr. Robb said. "I cannot recall any particular current or former official saying that they believed the P.D.B. 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 efforts in recent months by the Central Intelligence Agency to improve them. Asked about how the briefs have changed and whether they were still "more alarmist and less nuanced" than the underlying information warranted, as the commission concluded, the White House refused to comment.

Questions about the commission's critique and how the process has 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, Mr. 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 so roundly 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 Qaeda and emerging threats elsewhere around the world.

The nine-member commission found that the quality of the intelligence agencies' reporting on threats suffered from the same shortage of reliable sources that plagued the reporting on Iraqi weapons. So the commission's finding that the P.D.B. "likely conveyed a greater sense of certainty" than the data warranted is still very much a concern, Mr. Robb and Judge 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 C.I.A. 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 Mr. Bush now demands to see some of the backup sourcing, but they could not say how often he hears dissenting views, and Mr. Hadley's office would not comment on that issue.

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

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

The Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction, as it is formally called, reviewed about two years of the President's Daily Briefs in the period before the American-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 Mr. Goss has said that preparing, studying and delivering the daily brief takes as much as six hours a day. Although Mr. Bush has said the newly appointed director of national intelligence, John D. Negroponte, will become his "primary briefer," Mr. Robb and Judge Silberman said they thought that would distract Mr. 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 searing criticism, the agencies have begun to defend themselves. One former senior intelligence official said Saturday that "a little-known secret" of the commission's critique was that it borrowed heavily from the C.I.A.'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 have tried to make changes along the lines the commission recommends. Headlines are less sensational and "more neutral," the official said, and alternative views of other agencies are included more often.

But the former official said that taking a longer-range view of world developments, as the commission recommends, is not easy. "The daily mission eats your lunch," he said. "Policymakers ask dozens of questions every day that have to be answered within 24 hours."