Briefing the president of the United States is 95 percent
preparation and 5 percent presentation. And by preparation, I
don’t mean going over your materials so that you don’t forget
the important thing. People who forget the important thing just
aren’t invited to brief the president a second time.
By preparation, I mean background checks. Security clearances.
Checks and double checks at the White House gate. Triple checks
and metal detectors at the White House door. Briefings with
aides to aides, and then with aides to the president, and aides
to the secretaries just outside the Cabinet room. By the time
you’re actually sitting at the table, talking with the leader of
the free world, everyone is ready to get this over with so they
can move on to the next briefing and get something else done.
You see these types of briefings on The West Wing and it looks
like a big put-on, like a pageant. It’s not. Everyone is deadly
serious about understanding the issue at hand. And everyone,
everyone, is prepared. You and I as security and technology
professionals take certain technical concepts for granted and
perhaps think, He’s never going to get this. He’s the president.
He doesn’t have time to care about, say, viruses.
I remember feeling like that with President Clinton as about 20
of us briefed him and the Cabinet on distributed
denial-of-service attacks in February 2000. But the president
asked smart questions. And I’m sitting there thinking, He truly
gets what I’m saying. The level of preparation is really
When I briefed President Bush, it was about a specific
vulnerability, and it was in the context of military operations
beginning in Afghanistan. So there I was with [Special Adviser
for Cyberspace Security] Richard Clarke, [former Homeland
Security Director] Tom Ridge and [National Security Agency
Chief] Condi Rice. We were walking through the specific impact
this vulnerability could have on operations. The depth of
understanding, the comprehension of issues and the intense
preparation did not change from administration to
Briefings don’t last long—20 minutes, maybe, and you’re
out. They’re not anticlimactic, but then again, they’re not
scored to patriotic music, either. They are simply the product
of, almost an echo of, all that preparation.
—As told to Scott Berinato