WASHINGTON – For the first time, new national intelligence director John Negroponte (search) stepped into the Oval Office this week to present President Bush with his classified daily intelligence briefing (search).
The Wednesday morning session came as the administration is rethinking the way the government handles intelligence information following a series of reports critical of the way spy agencies collect and share information.
It also underscored that the White House is not immediately heeding the advice of a blue-ribbon presidential commission on intelligence, which recommended last month that someone other than Negroponte brief the president each day.
The briefing, previously conducted by the CIA director, is coveted because of the time and potential influence the briefer has with the president. Yet it also requires significant preparation on issues, such as the potential for a North Korean nuclear test or the latest Al Qaeda threat.
As a result, the presidential commission said in the report last month that the director of national intelligence, or DNI (search), should not "prepare, deliver or even attend every briefing."
"For if the DNI is consumed by current intelligence, the long-term needs of the intelligence community will suffer," the commissioners wrote in a letter to Bush that accompanied their report.
But Bush had said in February when he chose Negroponte to be intelligence chief that he would handle the briefing. It's not clear whether Negroponte alone presented the information this week or shared the task with other intelligence officials.
In the past, the briefing has been a matter of presidential preference.
A former senior intelligence official said Bush's father, President George H.W. Bush, had his briefings delivered by a senior analyst. President Clinton generally got his briefings in writing and would send them back with notes in the margins.
In 2001, then-CIA Director George Tenet (search) went to the first couple of briefings when Bush took office, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the secrecy which surrounds the briefing. Bush liked the interchange with the Tenet and let it be known that he wanted the director or his deputy present as often as possible for the President's Daily Brief, or PDB in Washington-speak.
"It takes a lot of time, but the president is the most important customer and if he wants you there and values your input ... you want to comply with his wishes," the official said.
Laurence Silberman, the Republican and senior appellate judge who co-chaired the commission, said at a recent American Bar Association breakfast that Bush was surprised to learn that when he asked a question, "There is an enormous amount of effort that goes into answering that question."
Porter Goss (search), the current CIA director, seems to agree. Goss, who delivered the reports after taking the post in September, told an audience in California last month that he spends five hours a day preparing for the briefing.
"I'm a little amazed at the workload," Goss said.
Consider Goss's day.
Individuals familiar with his routine said his CIA clock starts at 6:30 a.m., when he meets with a senior agency official about the latest intelligence. He heads to the White House and brings Bush up to speed. Then, he's off to the CIA's Langley campus, and at night he takes binders home to study for the next morning.
Not a lot is known about the morning briefings. In spring of 2004, Bush became the first president to release a document from his briefing, shedding some light on the closed sessions.
In releasing just over a page of material from an August 2001 document headlined "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US," the White House was trying to demonstrate that Bush hadn't been warned about Al Qaeda's interest in using airplanes as weapons.
White House National Security Council spokesman Frederick Jones said that Negroponte, along with the White House and intelligence community, is looking at the daily brief to determine the most "efficient and effective" way for Bush to receive it.
"I had every reason to believe, as did other members of the commission, that he was going to take our concerns or recommendations to heart," former Sen. Charles Robb, D-Va., the commission's other co-chairman, said in a recent interview.
Bush's commission also found numerous flaws with the reports and the way they're delivered.
The commission studied briefings leading up to the 2003 Iraq invasion and found that the headlines on the documents were too snappy and missed important nuances and the articles lacked significant context. The staff who assembled them focused on the day's hot topics or the president's interests, creating a distorted "drumbeat of 'hot news' articles," the commission's report said.
Robb said the White House may never announce any changes in Bush's briefing routine, so the public may never know.