Among the most frequently-quoted lines of T.S. Eliot’s poetry are (from 1934’s The Rock: A Pageant Play), “Where is the Life we have lost in living?/ Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?/ Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”
The last two queries are certainly prime concerns of boards of directors.
For instance, the Corporate Governance Principles and Practices of Prudential Financial specify that, “The board should receive information important to understanding presentations, discussions and issues covered at each meeting, in writing and sufficiently in advance of the meeting to permit appropriate review. Longer and more complex documents should contain executive summaries. The focus of materials should be on analysis rather than data.”
Perhaps the ultimate examples of the effective distillation and presentation of information are those discussed in The President’s Book of Secrets: The Untold Story of Intelligence Briefings to America’s Presidents (2016). Former CIA analyst David Priess provides an instructive chronicle of the origins, evolutions, and applications of the “President’s Daily Brief” (PDB), which was prepared by the Agency beginning in late 1964; and, which, since 2005, has been produced by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI).
That document summarizes for the Chief Executive “all relevant information from anywhere in the US government, presents an analytic message clearly and concisely, offers major alternative explanations, and highlights implications for US interests.” In fact, “No major foreign policy decisions are made without it.”
In light of the massive amount of sources and resources, including management and analyst time, involved in its preparation, the PDB has been described by a former Agency official as “the most expensive periodical in the world.”
Priess, who personally briefed administration officials on the PDB’s contents, interviewed “[e]ach living former president and vice president [and] almost every living former CIA director and deputy director for intelligence and the vast majority of other living former recipients of the book.”
Their recollections and reflections offer at least fourteen practical lessons to lawyers, law students, and executives.
First, a counselor or advisor must present data and analysis that is “actionable,” not in the lawyer’s sense (as in, constituting grounds for a lawsuit) but in the intelligence community’s meaning: capable of directly driving decisions by the principal, customer, or client.
Vice President Al Gore’s national security advisor, criticizing a PDB entry that discussed Chinese politics generally, objected to his briefers, “You guys just don’t get it. You think what’s important is what’s going on in China. It’s not. What’s important is what this means for the United States.” Around that time, the CIA instituted a “First Customer Initiative” that refocused the PDB “from ’What is going on in a particular situation overseas?’ to ‘What does the president need to know about this situation?’”
One of the PDB briefers for President George W. Bush “challenged analysts to be able to compellingly finish the simple sentence: ‘Mr. President, this piece is important because—.‘ If you can’t fill in that answer, you don’t have a piece. If you can answer it, you do—then you structure the piece to make that point clear, and quickly.”
In his own book, Philip Mudd recalls presenting a PDB item: “After I briefed the details of the threat, clearly and cleanly, I was satisfied. . . . Just as quickly as I’d spoken, though, a painful realization swept over me. I knew the briefing was wrong when [Bush] asked his first question. “What do we do about this?’ . . . I should have put the threat into context for him. . . .”
Yet Admiral Dennis Blair, a Director of National Intelligence under President Barack Obama, added that, beyond supporting immediate decision-making, the PDB should “give more on warning: it should spark the kinds of policy discussions that the president ought to be thinking about and help him see around the corner.” (As would, in March 2021, the DNI’s publicly-released analysis of Global Trends 2040.)
Second, brevity is crucial. The PDB is variously described as a “core six-to-ten page” document, supplemented by other material; containing “six to eight short analytic articles and additional items”; and usually including “two or three longer pieces, half a dozen intermediate-size ones, and then some quick little updates. I don’t think it ever went more than ten pages long.”
One analyst recalled being asked to trim his PDB contribution to thirty-two words: his supervisor then “took it, sat down, and rewrote every single word. . . . He got it to 32 again, but they were totally different words.”
Or, as Mudd put it, “The ugly secret for proud analysts is that. . . 90 percent of what they know (the data) might be useful at some other time, but it isn’t today. A good analyst has to have the humility to accept that.”
Similarly, Frank Watanabe’s unclassified How to Succeed in the [CIA’s Directorate of Intelligence]: Fifteen Axioms for Intelligence Analysts (1995)—which originally appeared in the Agency’s periodical, Studies in Intelligence—advised, “The consumer does not care how much you know, just tell him what is important.”
Third, the document should clearly distinguish facts from analysis. Robert Gates, CIA Director under President George H.W. Bush (and Secretary of Defense under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama), instituted this policy in 1982, and one year later concluded to his analysts that “No other single change we have made has elicited as many favorable comments from consumers as this.”
In fact, such an approach had briefly been adopted during President Richard Nixon’s administration, in response to Attorney General John Mitchell’s advice that “The President is a lawyer, . . . and a lawyer wants facts.”
Fourth, say what you don’t know. President Bill Clinton told Priess, “When [briefers] would just ‘fess up and say, ‘We don’t know this or that or the other thing—we can’t find that out yet,’ we’d ask them to try. The Agency was always really great working with us on that and giving us more information. It proved that the people who did the PDB were being honest.”
Similarly, Colin Powell, former Secretary of State and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has stated, “[O]ver time I developed for my intelligence staffs a set of four rules. . . I’m told they hang in offices around the intelligence world: Tell me what you know. Tell me what you don’t know. Then tell me what you think. Always distinguish which from which.”
Fifth, meeting these goals requires certain stylistic standards, as well as scrupulous editing. Watanabe reassured analysts, “Do not take the editing process too seriously. If editorial changes do not alter the meaning of what you are trying to say, accept them graciously[, but otherwise] do not be afraid to speak up and contest the changes.”
Gates recalled that a “cigar-chomping editor handed me back my first piece [as an analyst] for the PDB, and it looked like a bloody chicken had walked across it. That’s where I learned to be succinct and put things together in a coherent way.”
In an undated (but, clearly, dated) anecdote, an anonymous analyst admitted that:
“My lessons in clear writing came when I had slaved away on a piece down on my black-key Royal typewriter. . . .
“I’m standing in line, about three back, reading my piece. And the editor in front—smoking a cigarette, sleeves rolled up, about as old school as you could get—has some poor wretch up there, whose piece is in front of the guy. And he’s editing it with a ballpoint pen.
“Suddenly he looks up, to nobody in particular and everybody, and barks, ‘There’s not one f—–g active verb in this whole f—–g piece!’ I look down at my draft, and it’s full of passive voice. So I slipped out of there, went back down to my office, and retyped it.”
A senior CIA officer “at one point even outlawed adverbs from the PDB, finding that analysts would then use the word ‘because’ more often and, as result, explain more clearly the reasons behind their judgments.”
Sixth, formatting is also well worthy of attention. For each president, the CIA customized not just the PDB’s content and style (Jimmy Carter favored “longer backgrounders on issues such as Middle East peace negotiations, . . . and more material on foreign leaders”; Ronald Reagan, “’a straightforward presentation without too many parentheses and/or footnotes,’” and information on the “’human dimension’” of foreign leaders, such as their families and interests), but also its physical format (for Carter, “more white space than text on each page, allowing plenty of room for him to write notes”; for Obama, in 2012, the transition to a digital version, on an iPad).
However, the “First Customer” is not T.S. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock, who had “time yet for a hundred indecisions, / And for a hundred visions and revisions, / Before the taking of a toast and tea.” Watanabe warned, “Form is never more important than substance. . . [T]he consumer wants to know what the intelligence says, and he wants to know it when he needs to know it.”
Seventh, visual elements can also be crucial components of the presentation. Under Carter, the CIA, “’trying to make it a little more attractive and easier to read,’” added “’a few more graphics. . . , charts and maps and photos and things that were a little more helpful.’” To aid the digitization of Obama’s PDB, the Agency involved not only an “information technology expert,” but also a “graphic designer.”
In this context, counsel and others briefing clients might consider reviewing the classic works of Dr. Edward Tufte, such as The Visual Display of Quantitative Information (2nd ed. 2001), Visual Explanations (1997), and Envisioning Information (1990), as well as Stephen Few’s Show Me the Numbers: Designing Tables and Graphs to Enlighten (2d ed. 2012).
For their own part, recipients of visual briefings could consult Alberto Cairo’s examination of How Charts Lie: Getting Smarter About Visual Information (2019).
Eighth, analysts and their editors should also take into account how recipients read, whether from paper or from a screen. The PDB prepared for Clinton was carefully calibrated: “Editors rigidly broke their text into rectangular paragraphs and bullets, based on a study. . . about how different formats affected how readers moved their eyes across the page and retained information. ‘We usually had a 3-2 cadence in the PDB: three sentences in each paragraph, followed by two bullets. It could be 3-1, or 2-1, but there would always be some bullets.’”
Ninth, just like lawyers and executives, analysts should make special efforts to be aware of, and insulate themselves, from possible cognitive traps and biases. An enlightening collection of “articles written during 1978-86 for internal use within the CIA Directorate of Intelligence,” concerning “how people process information to make judgments on incomplete and ambiguous information,” appears in Psychology of Intelligence Analysis (1999), by former CIA senior analyst Richards J. Heuer.
That book can well be read in conjunction with Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011) (previously discussed), Nobel Prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman’s overview of his decades of research on these issues.
Tenth, as a former Deputy Director of Intelligence told Priess, “The conceptual breakthrough for me was that [the PDB] was an event, not a document.”
That “event,” and its process, both fostered and reflected many levels of relationships.
For example, the PDB has been shaped by decades of feedback, and follow-up requests, from presidents and their senior officials to CIA briefers, particularly after, upon taking office as Vice President, George H.W. Bush— himself a former director of the CIA (January 1976 to January 1977)— requested daily personal briefings as he reviewed the document. That practice became standard for (or at least offered to) many, if not all, of the PDB’s recipients.
Moreover, although the PDB seems to be the premier product among many that have been generated by elements of the intelligence community, it has been increasingly described as a joint effort of various agencies under the auspices of the DNI. As early as 1995, Watanabe advised analysts, “Know your [Intelligence] Community counterparts and talk to them. . . several times a month, not just when you need something,” to foster “better collection, better products, less duplication, and less conflict over coordination.”
On another level of relationships, the document’s distribution list (varying by administration, from very short in Nixon’s, to much longer in Clinton’s) included some recipients who at least in part were interested in being on the same page, so to speak, as the others.
A deputy secretary of defense under Clinton “spent his car ride into the office each morning on the PDB because he wanted to know what his boss and counterparts would be worried about that day.” Similarly, a deputy national security advisor to President Lyndon Johnson told Priess that even though on some topics the document “had little incremental value over what was in the newspapers and in Embassy cables. . . . I liked getting [it] because it was a very efficient way to see what the President was seeing on worldwide topics.”
Eleventh, the immediately preceding comment, and several others quoted by Priess, suggest that for their own personal and professional purposes, executives and their counsel should monitor, even if they might question the accuracy of, recent reports in “open source,” or publicly-available, publications (whether in hard copy or online). (As Mark Twain actually did not say, “If you don’t read the paper, you’re uninformed. If you do, you’re misinformed.”)
Twelfth, it is not only corporations like Prudential that consider it “important that line and support unit managers make presentations to the board from time to time, to permit the board to have exposure to officers at various levels.” As CIA Director under Carter, Admiral Stansfield Turner followed this practice in some PDB briefings: “I felt it was, number one, good for the president to hear from somebody else. . . . [H]e would have a give-and-take with them. I don’t remember him ever complaining that we shouldn’t have brought somebody in. Also, it was great for the analyst. If you’re a low-level analyst out there, you almost never get to see the director—let alone the president of the United States. It really pumped up their morale.”
In fact, under Director William Webster, to demonstrate the effectiveness of the CIA’s disguises, the chief of that unit attended a PDB briefing session with her gender and ethnicity concealed, and during the meeting revealed her true appearance to the startled participants (although, Priess notes, President George H.W. Bush had caught on early). (Eliot wrote, “There will be time, there will be time/ To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet.”)
Thirteenth, both the client and the advisor should be mindful of the degree to which written reports can be protected from disclosure— whether by attorney-client privilege, or, in the specific context of the PDB (and of inquiries by the 9/11 Commission), executive privilege.
In 2002, Vice President Dick Cheney predicted to Fox News that making these closely-held documents available to Congress “will have a chilling effect on the people who prepare the PDB. They’ll spend more time worried about how the report’s going to look on the front page of the Washington Post or on Fox News than they will making their best judgment and taking risk and giving us the best advice they can, in terms of what they think’s going on.”
(About thirteen years later, the CIA declassified and publicly released some PDBs prepared for President Johnson, and similar documents from the Kennedy administration; in 2016, the Agency released some PDBs from the Nixon and Ford administrations.)
Fourteenth, and perhaps most important, is maintaining both the actual, and the perceived, independence of analysts and advisors.
Most of Watanabe’s fifteen axioms urge the analyst to assertively prepare and promote her own assessments (including: “Believe in your own professional judgments”; “Be aggressive, and do not fear being wrong”; “When everyone agrees on an issue, something probably is wrong”; and, “Being an intelligence analyst is not a popularity contest”).
Priess portrays the authors, editors, and personal presenters of the PDB as objective and nonpartisan walkers between worlds, bridging the realms of tradecraft and statecraft, catalyzing a dynamic interplay that at its best informs and enhances both.
Such is also, surely, the role played by many lawyers—for instance, as intermediaries among the developers of, users of, and investors in, such emerging technologies as blockchain and cryptocurrency.
Not just contributors to the PDB, and not only lawyers, but anyone advising decision-makers, might strive to write a document in which, in T.S. Eliot’s words,
And sentence. . . is right (where every word is at home,
Taking its place to support the others,
The word neither diffident nor ostentatious,
An easy commerce of the old and the new,
The common word exact without vulgarity,
The formal word precise but not pedantic,
The complete consort dancing together) [and]
Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning. . . .