The Secret Briefing Obama Needs on Day One


Jan 22, 2009

This commentary originally appeared on Foreign Policy on January 22, 2009.

A select few Americans will ever see the president's daily brief — a digest of the intelligence community's most closely guarded secrets. But trust me, Barack Obama is going to need much more useful information than he is getting now.

Barack Obama's first President's Daily Brief (PDB) this week won't really be his first, for he has been receiving the same intelligence briefing as President Bush since his election victory. But it could provide a chance to make the briefing process much more useful. Now, the PDB is strictly an intelligence document, a number of "crown jewels" of recent collection from a spy or satellite image or intercepted signal, plus commentary. It is often caricatured as "CNN plus secrets." In the late 1990s, I was out of government but then national security advisor Samuel "Sandy" Berger cleared time in the middle of the day to discuss intelligence with me. In the course of a long, intriguing conversation, I ventured about the PDB: "I'm not sure why any president would want to read that, surely not as a first-thing-in-the-morning priority." To my surprise, Berger responded: "That's what I think, but no one ever said that to me before."

What I meant was not that the "crown jewels" were plaster, but only that presidents might better spend such critical time. Suppose, instead, that intelligence officers and policy planners from, say, the State Department and National Security Council (NSC) jointly prepared the document. The intelligence would be not simply juicy factoids, but more a continuing "story" constructed to visit — and revisit — policy choices in light of the administration's longer-term strategy. The process would be a chance, daily, for the administration to keep its eye on the strategic ball.

In that spirit, today's "PDB" might contain items like the following:

Afghanistan Update

Challenge: It is not news that the security situation is in a tailspin. The "top-down" security strategy is failing. In particular, the Afghan National Police is a broken institution, whose officers are corrupt, incompetent, under-resourced, and often loyal to local commanders rather than the central government. From 2005 to 2006, the violence in Afghanistan escalated dramatically. Suicide bombings quintupled from 27 to 139; the number of attacks from remotely detonated devices more than doubled from 783 to 1,677; and armed attakcs almost tripled from 1,558 to 4,542. Between 2006 and 2007, insurgent-initiated attacks rose another 27 percent. President Hamid Karzai, a Pashtun, is losing legitimacy: A recent poll found that a startling three quarters of Afghans think corruption is a serious problem in the country as a whole. Both recent open-source reporting (New York Times, for instance) and private sources deeply implicate Karzai's brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, if not Karzai himself, in the opium trade.

Long-term goal: No Afghan government's writ has ever run much beyond Kabul, if across all of it, so the goal cannot be a government, much less a democratic government, in control of all its territory. Rather, the goal is a country that does not provide a springboard or staging area for terrorist organizations threatening the United States. It is a minimal goal.

Action now: Consider a "surge" in U.S. forces but ask hard "what for?" The better Iraq analogy is the country's Anbar province, where the Sunnis turned, for their own reasons, on al Qaeda. Intensifying U.S. contacts with tribal leaders would shift the balance toward a bottom-up strategy. Tribal and regional leaders would have their own reasons for opposing the Taliban and imposing order. For instance, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the leader of Hezb-e-Islami and formerly one of the primary leaders of the anti-Soviet mujahideen, broke with the Taliban before 2001 and was driven to close ranks with the group only with the U.S. occupation. The National Front is a Tajik-led, mostly northern-based coalition composed of former communists, former anti-Soviet mujahideen, and former anti-Taliban Northern Alliance members. The Northern Alliance was the principal U.S. ally in ousting the Taliban from power in 2001. It opposes Pashtun dominance of Afghanistan — whether led by the Taliban or by the current Pashtun-dominated Afghan government.

Guantánamo Update

Challenge: Approximately 250 detainees remain at Guantánamo. Given the lack of any agreement with Yemen, 40 percent of these are Yemenis. More than 60 are eligible for release but can't be let loose because their home countries won't take them. Perhaps 80 might be tried, but so far only 20 have been charged, and only two trials have been completed.

Long-term goal: Reshape the perception of the United States abroad as a country that prizes the rule of law and is far more humane in treating its enemies than they are.

Action now: Announce a date for closing Guantánamo. That will put pressure on the government to accelerate negotiations with Yemen and others about returning eligible detainees. It will also probably require preparing the way for some form of preventive detention, with judicial safeguards, for those detainees that can neither be tried nor released.

Global regulation in the economic crisis

Challenge: The economic crisis will put pressure on Europe in many ways, as open-source reporting makes clear. One dimension not yet well understood is that it is pushing countries there and around the world to re-regulate — and own — their banking systems as parts of financial bailouts. The largest European bailout came in mid-October, by six European countries and worth more than €1 trillion. Yet it was hardly a fully coordinated response. For instance, the French government planned to shore up the capital of France's six main retail banks with a €10.5 billion bailout plan, in return for an agreement to increase the credit available to households, businesses, and local governments by 3 to 4 percent in 2009. The European Union first objected, arguing that the move would bolster the position of the banks themselves, not just offset the negatives of the financial crisis. Later, though, the EU agreed that up to €500,000 could be extended by states to a bank without EU approval. Germany's second-largest bank, Commerzbank, received €8.2 billion in capital in the mid-October bailout and then another €10 billion in early January, a portion of which will be used to buy a 25 percent stake in the bank. For its part, Britain acquired a 43 percent stake in Lloyds-HBOS bank when its Treasury had to step in to buy shares that were not selling on the open market. The British government came to own two other banks, Northern Rock and Bradford & Bingley, outright.

Long-term goal: International regulation is reshaping, but how? The challenge will be to deal with the distinct national differences, in Europe and elsewhere, in how states come to regulate their financial sector even as they become equity stakeholders in it. The end-game of the economic crisis will require more than mutual recognition of limited regulation.

Action now: None immediate; set Treasury planners to watch developments, in cooperation with NSC planning.

Gregory F. Treverton is the director of the Center for Global Risk and Security at the RAND Corporation and author of the forthcoming Intelligence for an Age of Terror.

More About This Commentary

Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.