The Intel Importance of Being Pence: The Vice President’s National Security Role
The CIA briefer started her day in the late 1990s like she had before on so many other working mornings: taking a highly sensitive intelligence document from Langley into downtown Washington and hand-delivering it to the man for whom it had been personally crafted. Its top secret updates covered a wide range of issues in the wake of the Cold War’s end, ranging from emerging humanitarian crises to political change in Russia to growing evidence of environmental transformation.
This scenario sounds like the delivery of the President’s Daily Brief to President Bill Clinton. It’s not. This book of secrets, instead, was the Vice President’s Supplement, created specifically for Al Gore. Its very existence, though little known, points to the growing intelligence job of the vice president from negligible beginnings in the 1960s.
Anecdotes from the modern vice presidents’ intelligence experiences reveal the extent to which the modern vice presidency has grown into a serious national security position — and illuminates an underappreciated position Vice President-elect Mike Pence may play in the Trump administration.
It’s Not Easy Being Number Two
Lyndon Johnson began his vice presidency in 1961 without any support staff on national security issues, and neither Allen Dulles nor John McCone — Kennedy’s two CIA directors — provided finished intelligence or briefings directly to Johnson.
Even in June 1961, when the CIA started giving John F. Kennedy the new President’s Intelligence Checklist — the first daily intelligence report tailored specifically to the personality and style of the president — the vice president stayed outside of the intelligence loop. The only attempt to give him the document came from a senior CIA analyst who had noticed an oddity back in December 1961.
Kennedy had told the Agency to deliver his checklist outside the White House and, for the first time, to Dean Rusk at the State Department and Robert McNamara at the Pentagon. Thus, three of the four statutory members of the National Security Council — the president, secretary of state, and secretary of defense — would now be seeing the Checklist every morning. But the fourth formal member of the National Security Council would remain ignorant of each day’s most sensitive intelligence: the vice president. Surprised, a senior CIA analyst raised it with the National Security Council’s executive secretary, Bromley Smith, asking, “What about the Vice President?” Smith’s reply was firm and final: “Under no circumstances!”
Every day, Vice President Lyndon Johnson’s office received only a copy of the CIA’s Central Intelligence Bulletin, a less exclusive report, without any intelligence briefer attached. There is no evidence that he read it. In fact, Johnson saw the more exclusive checklist only after becoming president in the wake of Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963.
In January 1965, Hubert Humphrey finally became vice president and, shortly thereafter, started receiving the President’s Daily Brief (PDB), which the CIA in December 1964 had created on the foundation of Kennedy’s checklist. Even so, Johnson kept Humphrey out of major national security deliberations, including his famous Vietnam-focused “Tuesday lunches.” Spiro Agnew, Nixon’s first vice president, didn’t fare much better. He remained outside PDB distribution for more than a year and failed to get into Nixon’s decision-making circle.
Agnew’s replacement moved the ball forward. On July 1, 1974, Gerald Ford started receiving personalized CIA briefings of the President’s Daily Brief as his first business item each day — sometimes at the kitchen table of his modest home in Alexandria, Virginia, more often in the backseat of his car as he was driven downtown. Ford’s sessions with his PDB briefer worked so well that he continued them as president — becoming the first commander in chief to take regular, in-person briefings from an intelligence officer. He also allowed his own vice president, Nelson Rockefeller, to read a copy of his PDB every morning during his ride into the office.
The Rise of the Modern Vice President
Jimmy Carter was determined to give Vice President-elect Walter Mondale more access and influence than any of his predecessors had experienced and bring him into all areas of governing, including foreign affairs. This started even before inauguration. During Carter’s first post-convention intelligence briefing on July 28, Mondale jumped in with questions, grilling the briefers on arms control details and delving into sensitive areas such as the CIA’s collection techniques and its ties to foreign intelligence services.
Once sworn in, Mondale read the President’s Daily Brief every day. He saw not just any copy of the book. He received the president’s own copy of the PDB. As Mondale explained to me when I interviewed him for my book on presidential intelligence briefings, “The President would read it and then I would see it with his written comments.” And it was Mondale’s national security advisor — not a Carter aide — who in 1979 wrote a top secret memo to CIA Deputy Director Frank Carlucci laying out what he perceived as the book’s gross failings, spurring the PDB’s biggest content change in two decades.
The next vice president, George H.W. Bush, knew the value of having a briefer in the room because he’d led the CIA for a year during the Ford administration. Sure enough, Bush insisted on having a working-level CIA officer come to him during his entire eight years as Reagan’s vice president. The intelligence officer brought extensive supplemental information, ranging from details of CIA operations to analytic insights that had been left on the cutting room floor. Vice President Bush’s insistence on taking a personal PDB briefing every day emboldened the CIA to suggest the same practice for other recipients of the book, like the secretary of state and secretary of defense. They accepted, setting a precedent that PDB customers in future administrations, with few exceptions, have followed.
Upon becoming president in 1989, Bush both continued his own daily face-to-face PDB briefings and told Vice President Dan Quayle that he could attend any presidential meetings or intelligence briefings. Quayle told me that Bush said to him, “You need to know exactly what I know.” He attributes the president’s insistence on keeping him in the loop to Bush’s own eight years as vice president, which included John Hinckley’s assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan.
Gore, like Mondale before him, played an active role in the intelligence briefings that the CIA provided to his running mate and engaged fully on national security issues after inauguration. President Clinton told me that when an article in the PDB grabbed his attention, he often would “talk to Al Gore about it — and I would ask him to go read the raw intelligence, go dig deeper.”
The vice president’s own daily intelligence briefers discovered quickly that his interests ranged both wide and deep, and they found it hard to keep him satisfied with the PDB. “I asked them so many damned questions every day,” Gore told me, “I guess they worried about cluttering the Presidents Daily Brief.”
The result was the Vice President’s Supplement, a de facto second PDB, tailored to Al Gore’s schedule and interests. It focused on environmental, economic, technological, and humanitarian topics as well as on issues related to the bilateral commissions that Gore was responsible for, such as those with Russia, South Africa, Egypt, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan. The appeal of this product soon extended beyond its namesake customer. Clinton — the “first customer” in intel-speak — started reading Gore’s daily product as well as his own book of secrets.
Gore’s successor as vice president, Dick Cheney, didn’t receive a separate second book of daily intelligence. But in addition to getting the same PDB that George W. Bush received each morning, Cheney also enjoyed a “behind-the-tab” section of his binder, full of additional finished intelligence reports as well as raw intelligence. “The briefers would put material there that had been generated because of the questions I’d ask, or because I’d expressed an interest in a particular subject,” Cheney told me. “That was at least double the size of my daily brief.”
Although there are few public details about Vice President Joe Biden’s interaction with intelligence, he has been a PDB recipient from the very start of the Obama administration — supporting his active role in everything from National Security Council meetings to the tight-circle meetings advising President Barack Obama on the Abbottabad raid that killed Usama bin Laden. Further, Biden is in the Oval Office when Obama receives the daily PDB briefing, and the president has suggested that the vice president actively participates in these meetings, along with the national security advisor, Biden’s national security advisor, and members of the White House senior staff.
What duties will Pence ultimately have on intelligence issues? The events of 2016 have taught us to expect surprises from Donald Trump. He may, after all, discover that he enjoys the relatively free reign in world politics that the so-called imperial presidency grants him. Vice President Pence could find himself just one voice among many competing for the president’s ear.
However, lessons from the past combined with the specifics of the ongoing transition suggest that Pence is more likely to take on a substantial role, like those assumed by Al Gore and Dick Cheney, rather than a limited role, like Lyndon Johnson or Spiro Agnew.
First, the increasingly institutionalized support apparatus around the vice presidency since Johnson’s time as president makes substantial influence the default. Today’s White House infrastructure includes a vice presidential national security advisor and deputy as well as a whole team of staffers dedicated to that office. Moreover, every vice president since George H.W. Bush has had available a regular PDB briefer from the intelligence community.
Second, the differences between Trump’s and Pence’s patterns of intelligence briefings during the transition bolster the latter’s chances for a major intelligence role. Reports indicate that the incoming commander-in-chief now receives PDB briefings roughly once a week, but that Pence, since early November, has accepted intelligence sessions almost every day. Thus, Pence is absorbing a wide range of top secret assessments and familiarizing himself with the power and limitations of intelligence analysis. During this same period, Trump has focused on announcements of Cabinet appointments, victory tour appearances, and his Twitter account. Pence has largely stayed out of the limelight, spending more time with intelligence briefers than with the media.
Third, unlike most previous vice presidents-elect, Pence soon after election day took over as transition chairman. This recalls the experience of Cheney, who led the Bush administration’s transition team. This position has afforded Pence more influence than most of his predecessors on national security appointments, just as it did with Cheney, who was instrumental in selecting his former boss, Donald Rumsfeld, as secretary of defense. This in turn, gives Pence helpful perspective both on the relative strengths and weaknesses of these incoming senior officials and on his own place in the mix.
The president-elect’s apparent lack of interest in daily intelligence makes it likely that Pence will become a crucial customer for the intelligence community — perhaps warranting a personally focused top secret book of his own, like Gore received. And if Trump enters office uninterested in the day-to-day management of foreign policy, determined to delegate the bulk of it to others, Pence is the most likely official to pick up the slack.
In which case, those daily PDB briefings that Pence has elected to receive since early November will prove to have been a wise investment of his time — and of the intelligence community’s efforts — during this historic transition.
David Priess is an intelligence and national security consultant and speaker who served at the CIA during the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations as an analyst, manager, and daily intelligence briefer. He is the author of The President’s Book of Secrets: The Untold Story of Intelligence Briefings to America’s Presidents from Kennedy to Obama (PublicAffairs, 2016). Follow him on Twitter @DavidPriess.
Image: Gage Skidmore, CC