POTUS was briefed: Not paying attention is a different problem

POTUS was briefed: Not paying attention is a different problem
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Once again, the media and the punditocracy, not to mention Congress, are scooting down a rabbit hole the White House has dug for them. Whether the president received an oral briefing on Russian bounties to the Taliban for killing coalition soldiers in Afghanistan is actually a non-issue. If, as seems evident, the information was included in the President’s Daily Brief (PDB), the president was briefed. Failure to pay attention is no excuse. We don’t need a tedious and distracting debate.

Look carefully at the description of the PDB by what the president might describe as “his” Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI). It is a “daily summary of high-level, all-source information and analysis on national security issues produced for the president and key cabinet members and advisers. The PDB is coordinated and delivered by the [Office of the Director of National Intelligence] with contributions from the CIA as well as other [Intelligence Community] elements.”

Several key points here:

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  • This is a document clearly addressed to and intended for the president.
  • It is the product of coordinated efforts across our wide-ranging and diverse Intelligence Community (IC).
  • The contents are high-level and take into account all available sources of information.

Simply put: Nothing gets into the President’s Daily Brief that is not, by definition, deemed worthy of the president’s attention by the Intelligence Community. It has been thoroughly considered. One element of the IC may have a lower level of confidence in a piece of intelligence than other IC elements have, but the PDB is a consolidated Intelligence Community product.

We are told that, in the current White House (unlike in past administrations), the vice president, secretary of State, and national security adviser often read the PDB before it is delivered to the president and “and edit out material they think is inconclusive, particularly if it contradicts Trump’s policies.” This is yet another specious line of defense for the president: the “I didn’t know because my subordinates didn’t tell me” defense.

It is, quite simply, the responsibility of the president to create an environment in which advisers can reliably and safely come to the Oval Office to have difficult conversations. They need to be able to tell the president things he does not want to hear. They must look to the horizon for emerging problems, rather than pretending all is well until a problem has matured to the point of requiring urgent crisis management. (The COVID-19 debacle richly demonstrates the danger of just deciding an unpleasantness will go away of its own accord.)

It’s true that national leaders fairly often fail to create such an environment. It is well worth reading a document of some years ago which describes in detail just such a failure:

"Those around X knew their future depended on their ability to divine what he wanted. ...  Those who survived knew how to relate in this environment. ... They were often forced to anticipate what X wanted because they did not want to be in a position to have to say no. 

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"Complicating their lives was the tendency of X to hold his cards close while he allowed minions to debate. ... He tended to allow ideas to float up ... often never pronouncing on them one way or the other. ... Much guidance to the government was implicit rather than explicit."

The document in question is often referred to as the report of the Iraq Study Group, and in the foregoing citation “X” stands for Saddam Hussein. Completed in September 2004, the report benefited from the opportunity analysts had to interview numerous key figures of Saddam’s Ba’athist regime, who described in meticulous detail the prevailing atmosphere and decision-making processes.

It is truly sad that this description of the inner workings of one of the most heinous dictatorial regimes in recent history also offers important clues or analogies to the workings of our current White House. And yet, how leaders operate — the environments they create — have deep implications for the policies they set (or fail to set), for the actions they take (or fail to take). This is true in democratic political systems, as in authoritarian ones.

Character has practical consequences.

In the U.S. system, the conduct of the head of government is even more important than it is in most other democracies. While the president is not correct that Article II of the Constitution empowers him to do whatever he wants, the legislative checks on his powers and actions are certainly weaker than in parliamentary democracies, where the head of government requires a majority in parliament to govern. And as we have seen, the judiciary checks on executive power in the U.S. can work very slowly. The U.S. president is an especially powerful head of government and chief of state.

There is a proverb often phrased as “the fish stinks first from the head.” Though the concept is widespread and ancient, the proverb is often attributed to the Turks, so the President’s buddy Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan certainly knows it well. The refusal to accept responsibility — and the “see no evil, hear no evil” White House approach — are the real story. They go much deeper than the sideshow over what type of briefing the president received. The stink from the head of the fish is getting stronger. We all should resist White House efforts to lure us down alternative, minor scent trails.

During the Reagan administration, Eric R. Terzuolo’s Foreign Service postings included the U.S. embassies in Beirut and in Rome. He worked both on deployment of U.S. intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF) to Italy and then on implementation of the INF Treaty. Terzuolo was a foreign service officer from 1982 to 2003, and from 2010 to 2017 taught at the Foreign Service Institute, the professional development unit of the Department of State, with responsibility for West European area studies. He is currently teaching at American University’s School of International Service. The views expressed here are entirely his own.