Intelligence in Action
On the Job with the Director’s Briefer
It’s 1 a.m. on a Tuesday morning, and Colleen Stewart (not her real name) is settling in on the 11th floor of FBI Headquarters. Most of the country’s asleep. But for Stewart, it’s time to log into a half-dozen top secret databases and make sense of the moment’s most pressing threats against the U.S., its citizens, and its allies.
Over the next eight hours, Stewart will review and research dozens of threat analyses. Then she’ll distill them into a narrative to deliver in morning briefings to the Director, the Attorney General, and the FBI’s top counterterrorism officials. The intelligence is developed across the breadth of U.S. intelligence agencies, including from within the Bureau. But it falls on one intelligence analyst detailed to the FBI’s Directorate of Intelligence to boil it down to a coherent 20-minute morning briefing. The pace of the job is intense, weighted by the analyst’s singular responsibility and the gravity of time-sensitive intelligence.
“Not getting things done is not an option,” says Stewart, the Director’s intelligence briefer for the past year. “The Director is expecting you to have gone through the reports and pulled out the important information.”
The reports are developed by FBI intelligence analysts and partner agencies, like the CIA, NSA, and the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), and disseminated across the intelligence community. The reports are complied into a book that Stewart will be expected to know cover-to-cover by morning.
Around 2 a.m., NCTC issues its latest report. The briefer’s challenge is to glean the most important items to highlight, while at the same time having a sense of the Director’s depth of knowledge to avoid wasting time.
“You’ve got to get to the point and get to it quickly,” Stewart says.
The intelligence briefer position resulted in part from post-9/11 reforms that called for better communications among intelligence agencies. In 2003, as agencies increased sharing, the Bureau first enlisted an FBI intelligence analyst with deep counterterrorism experience to deliver the Director’s briefing. Today, briefers like Stewart and others who keep the Director abreast of events throughout the day can easily access partner agency databases with a keyboard and mouse.
“Who is this guy?” Stewart says to herself, her eyes trained on her monitor. “I recognize this face.” It’s 3 a.m., and she’s looking at a rap sheet of sorts on a suspected terrorist she’s seen before, but the name is new. She consults a binder containing charts she’s amassed to help visually connect the dots. Then she sees it. “That’s who … ok … aha.”
Stewart, 35, has always been interested in law enforcement. She studied criminology and interned with the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit before joining the Bureau in 2008. She was a public corruption analyst before responding to a call last year for candidates interested in the year-long briefer assignment.
“I thought, ‘Who wouldn’t want to do that job?’” Stewart says.
By 4:20 a.m., the night’s intelligence reports are organized in binders for the Director, the Attorney General, their staffs, and leadership across the Counterterrorism Division. The Director’s book is hand-delivered around 5:30 a.m., giving him a couple hours to review it before he’s briefed.
At 6 a.m., Stewart stows the food that she never got around to eating. She changes from sweats into a dark suit and runs through a mental checklist of the last five hours.
“Unlike many jobs,” Stewart says, “here you have to be at the top of your game at the end of your shift.”
At 6:50 a.m. Stewart pre-briefs her bosses to shore up her presentation before briefing—in succession—the Counterterrorism Division, Director Mueller, and Attorney General Eric Holder. Briefings aren’t passive, so Stewart makes sure she has answers to potential questions and has invited subject-matter experts who sit in to support their analyses. The result: critical information gets delivered directly to decision-makers who need it to shape how the FBI responds to the most pressing threats.
“What the briefers do is critical,” says Mark Giuliano, head of the FBI’s Counterterrorism Division.“They find the intel that rises above the other noise, put context to it, and share it with the people who need it. Analysts and briefers really know how it all fits together, and that’s where the value is added.”
“Unlike many jobs, here you have to be at the top of your game at the end of your shift.”
Colleen Stewart, director's intelligence briefer