TAMPA: The conventional image of an American president managing a crisis shows him thumbing through a briefing book on a desk in the Situation Room or Oval Office. The new standard may well become that of a president with an iPad in his lap or on his desk, keenly watching a video or flipping through a series of satellite images or listening to an NSA intercept as he peers at an NGA map overlaid with targets and reams of hyperspectral data or showing the movements of a terrorist over time.
The Director of National Intelligence (DNI) is the man formally charged with briefing the president each work day on the world’s most pressing intelligence and national security issues faced by the United States but he covers a lot of territory so, day-in day-out another person — Robert Cardillo — oversees compilation of what’s known in Washington as the PDB.
Cardillo, deputy DNI for integration, rarely grants interviews, speaks to the press or to Congress. (He’s probably spoken to Congress more than he’d like lately, but that’s another story. Think of Syria’s poison gas attacks.)
At the end of last week’s Geoint conference (the world’s largest intelligence conference), Cardillo offered a rare glimpse inside the PDB, talking of “oval briefs” and how the Intelligence Community continues to grapple with essential problems like how to tell the president what he needs to know and how to decide what he needs to know.
Cardillo spends a lot of time in the White House so he knows his principal client pretty well. As a deputy on the National Security Council he meets one to three times a day in the Situation Room. And then there are those regulars forays to the Oval Office for the “oval briefings.”
He told a small gathering of reporters Thursday afternoon that we wouldn’t be “surprised by the topics” of the PDB. “Today it’s Ukraine; it’s Iran; it’s Korea it’s South Sudan; it’s cyber; it’s terrorism etc.”
While that is not surprising (and is wonderfully vague) the more interesting details were about how the president gets his briefing. That brings us back to the iPad or other tablets used. (If you peer closely at the photo below you will see that is Cardillo in the Oval Office with the president, finger poised over the tablet. That was the first time a tablet was used to brief the president.)
The White House and the president initially pushed quite forcefully to get the PDB delivered digitally. That got the ball rolling. But Cardillo made clear that things have moved at the more usual Washington pace since then.
“We did offer him the move to the tablet about a year ago,” he told me when I asked for an update. (The photo was taken more than two years ago.) “My motivation was two-fold. My job is to tell stories — which is your job by the way — and to tell them clearly and crisply.” More interestingly, he noted a cultural bias in the Intellgience Community’s workforce.
“I also wanted to send a message to our workforce that says, look some of you may be struggling with the transition from our customary comfort zone, which is prose,” he said, noting “there were some people who worried, felt this is glitzy, and we will lose our way and we will forget our tradecraft….”
But Cardillo made pretty clear that argument has been heard and the tablet will be used: “If the real measure or merit of our business is alerting, informing, providing insight, understanding so that you can make a decision, then the tablet is a way at least to open up possibilities of ways to do that.” He “would like to see it move faster myself.”
Almost two years ago, when I wrote the first story about efforts to digitize the PDB, there was much talk about giving the president secure smartphones or tablets from which he could both pull and push for information. The deputy DNI did not address that during his discussion but I would be surprised if the IC has found ways to do that in a way that maintains its ability to do that securely and without disrupting the PDB process.
Today, the IC tries to provide the most useful product to the man they call the customer. What and when does the president need to know something, and why does he need it, they ask themselves. If the president started sending emails to ask for more or new information — especially without the PDB leadership team there to ensure they understood exactly what he wanted — that could create a whole lot of excitement in the Old Executive Office Building, in the DNI’s offices and at CIA headquarters.