by Howard Schmidt

What It’s Like To…Brief The President

Dec 15, 20042 mins
IT Leadership

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 amazing.

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 administration.

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