As one of the most powerful leaders in the world, the president of the United States commands a nuclear arsenal, the world's largest military, and potentially controversial classified intelligence. But what's inside the Presidential Book of Secrets? Does it even exist?
President Obama confirmed the existence of "deep secrets" while he was in office, but the nature of those secrets is a source of constant debate. Conspiracy theorists argue there's an actual book handed from president to president containing the truth about JFK's assassination, alien life, and the moon landing, among other secrets. But most scholars and skeptics dismiss the book as an invention fueled by pop culture with movies like National Treasure: Book of Secrets.
Did spymaster and alleged secret society member George Washington start the tradition of handing down secrets so explosive only the president could read them? Do all modern presidents spend part of their first 100 days learning about secret CIA plots and hidden stores of gold? How much do we know about the president's book of secrets?
If the book of secrets does exist, some argue it may date all the way back to George Washington, the first president. Washington wasn't a stranger to secrets. During the Revolutionary War, the general operated a spy network known as the Culper Spy Ring.
For five years, Culper Ring spies provided detailed information on British troop activity by infiltrating British headquarters in New York City. The spies used code names, like 711 for Washington, 745 for England, and 727 for New York, to cover their work. If George Washington did leave a book of secrets for his successor, John Adams, perhaps the first chapter included information on his spy network.
In 2017 former CIA intelligence briefer David Priess wrote a book called The President's Book of Secrets. Priess brought years of firsthand intelligence experience to his book after serving presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. In fact, Priess was responsible for writing both presidents' daily briefs, the rundown of top-secret intelligence for the president.
In the book, Priess argues these daily briefings, which date back to 1961, comprise the "book of secrets" for presidents. While the briefings contain classified intelligence and analysis, they almost certainly don't include the conspiracy theory fodder.
The existence of the President's Daily Brief is a fact, even if the book of secrets might be fiction. Each president chooses how to receive these classified briefings. Ford and both Bushes preferred in-person briefings, while other modern presidents elected to read intelligence reports. In 2012 Obama started obtaining his daily briefs on a secure iPad.
The new technology allowed intelligence analysts to include interactive graphics as well as audio and video clips in the briefing.
According to one theory, the book of secrets remains hidden in the Library of Congress, which is the biggest library in the world. That theory proposes only the president and the Librarian of Congress know the book's location, so in case of an assassination, the librarian can pass on the secrets for the next president.
In 2008 the Library of Congress hosted an exhibit displaying the book of secrets movie prop from National Treasure: Book of Secrets next to a replica of John Wilkes Booth's diary. The Library of Congress emphasized that the book of secrets does not exist (or, at least, not in the LOC collection) by noting, "unlike the 'Book of Secrets,' a Booth diary actually existed."