The Road to Jan 6 Final

'Enemies Foreign and Domestic'? Threats the Daily Intelligence Briefs Left Out

In this daily series, Newsweek explores the steps that led to the January 6 Capitol Riot.

On November 30, President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris received their first President's Daily Brief, Biden in Wilmington, Delaware, and Senator Harris at a secure room in the Commerce Department in Washington.

In 2016, Donald Trump had received his first PDB, as it is known, less than a week after the election. Trump had been given the same briefing as Barack Obama, and Biden and Harris received the same briefing that Donald Trump received that day.

The PDB, the most secret and limited circulation newsletter, is read in the White House and among the highest level national security officials. Biden had regularly received the PDB as Vice President. Harris received her first-ever PDB.

According to an intelligence community official involved in the preparation of the PDB, the briefing this day dealt with Afghanistan, Iran, Russia and China, and also touched on COVID, terrorism and the economy. Additional items created just for Biden and Harris included a tour of the latest intelligence from around the world as well as forecasts regarding threats. The two also got the first of a number of briefings on CIA covert actions around the world—covert actions that Biden would inherit on January 20.

Donald Trump 2020 Presidential Campaign Joe Biden
The President's Daily Briefing was supposed to cover threats from "enemies foreign and domestic." It didn't. Members of Antifa and Proud Boys clash on November 14, 2020 in Washington, DC. Samuel Corum/Getty Images

"From my experience with then-Vice President Biden, he was an avid reader and in general a voracious consumer of intelligence," Obama's last director of national intelligence, retired Gen. James Clapper, said on CNN. "I'm sure he will be especially so as president."

Trump, on the other hand, often skipped getting the PDB and hardly ever scrutinized the written report, instead relying on live oral briefings, videos and extensive graphics prepared for his consumption.

("Michelle called it 'The Death, Destruction, and Horrible Things Book,'" Obama wrote in "A Promised Land," his memoir. "On a given day, I might read about terrorist cells in Somalia or unrest in Iraq or the fact that the Chinese or Russians were developing new weapons systems," and "nearly always, there was mention of potential terrorist plots, no matter how vague, thinly sourced, or unactionable—a form of due diligence on the part of the intelligence community, meant to avoid the kind of second-guessing that had transpired after 9/11.")

And then there was the issue of Trump political appointees being quietly converted to fulltime civil servants. There was the prospect, Congressional Democrats argued, that the outgoing administration would seed the government with potential saboteurs. Leaders of nearly two dozen House committees demanded information from 61 federal agencies on any efforts to convert political appointees to career civil service positions ahead of President-elect Biden's inauguration.

Another letter, this one from the House Oversight Committee Chair Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) inquired about a Trump plan to exempt high level policy-making positions from normal civil service performance measures. Maloney argued that this would undermine the merit systems that form the very basis of the civil service.

The news media fretted that the two-week delay in the transition jeopardized the country. It was a legacy 9/11 concern, that a potential terrorist strike from abroad could happen during the transition, or that one of the four perpetual adversaries—China, Russia, Iran or North Korea—would make a move to test the new administration or even to attack outright.

But the national threat was focused outward, from foreign sources. Both the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI could forward warnings of domestic threats to the Director of National Intelligence for inclusion in President's Daily Briefs, but there is no evidence that domestic threats ever made it into the hallowed document. It was another blind spot that would become apparent on January 6, that "enemies foreign and domestic" was just a phrase.