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Presidential Security Briefings

What We Think We Know

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Updated November 09, 2008

Within 48 hours of being elected the 44th President of the United States, Barack Obama received his first presidential security briefing from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). What did they talk about? What happens during daily presidential security briefings? There are two ways, and two ways only, for you to find out for sure; be elected President of the United States or be appointed Director of National Intelligence at the CIA. No confirmed transcripts or specific details of presidential security briefings have ever been made public and each president works with the CIA and intelligence community to tailor the timing and content of the briefings.

What We Think We Know
Based on past National Intelligence Estimates, some of which have been declassified, we can draw some pretty dependable conclusions about the general content of presidential security briefings.

  • The CIA, in consultation with the entire U.S. intelligence community (IC), probably provides the president a detailed list of real and and perceived threats to national security, along with currently available options for military, IC, and diplomatic responses to those threats.

  • The president is almost certainly updated on the status of critical ongoing and planned military, and intelligence operations around the world.

  • Current troop levels and updates on all U.S. military capabilities and levels of readiness worldwide are probably discussed.

It is also believed that national security briefings given to presidents elect before they actually take office do not contain information needed to actually initiate U.S. military action. Constitutionally, the incumbent president remains the Commander in Chief of the military until the inauguration of the incoming president.

An Election Night Letter Sheds Some Light
An Election Night 2008 letter from Mike McConnell, the director of national intelligence to the intelligence community offers some additional insight into presidential security briefings.

In his letter, McConnell outlines the briefings given to the presidential and vice presidential candidates prior to the election. "We communicated vital information about the Global War on Terrorism and other topics, and the briefings prompted direct, incisive questions by the candidates," he wrote.

McConnell also confirmed that Presidents-elect typically decide exactly how they want their daily security briefings structured after they officially take office. "In the days following the inauguration of a new President, we will adjust to the new President's preferences," wrote McConnell.

However they are structured and whatever information is exchanged, the daily security briefings will remain a critical time in the daily activities of every president.

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