Freeing the President’s Daily Brief
This article originally appeared on Archivist John Prados’ website.
September 16, 2015 – Today the big pooh-bahs of the security services–Fearful Leader Clapper, the Machiavellian Brennan, former SEAL chieftain Admiral McRaven, and a number of their predecessors, have gathered in Austin, Texas, at the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library. Their purpose is to preside over an event at which the government agencies and the National Archives formally open for research the key intelligence reports for the ages. Today these are called the President’s Daily Briefs (PDBs). Jack Kennedy knew them as the PICKL (predictably, “pickle”), or President’s Intelligence Checklist; Dwight D. Eisenhower’s staff had even more awkward names like “Synopsis of Intelligence Items Reported to the President.” (They never could find an acronym for that one.)
If you’re familiar with the PDB at all it is probably due to the now-notorious issue of August 6, 2001, in which CIA analysts reported their sense that Al Qaeda terrorists were likely to employ large aircraft as weapons. The Bush White House, which paid no attention, moved heaven and earth to keep that PDB out of the hands of 9/11 investigators. Michael Morrell, Mr. Bush’s CIA briefer, went on to great things at the agency after his time with the PDB, so you can see it’s serious business.
The PDB is literally the president’s daily secret newspaper. The Johnson Library alone has 38 boxes (an archival box typically contains roughly 2,500 pages). Kennedy another 17, and Eisenhower records together possibly contain that many more. Who knows how many boxes of PDBs accumulated during the Nixon, Carter, Reagan, Bush (I and II), Clinton, and Obama administrations.
These documents have a long and storied past. The very first PDB was crafted on February 15, 1946. In Ike’s day they were written right inside the White House by the president’s trusted staff secretary, Colonel Andrew Goodpaster, and started simply as his notes. He, and John S. D. Eisenhower, the president’s son–and Goodpaster’s assistant–had the advantage of knowing precisely what the president worried himself about.
But like most things that go to presidents, the PDBs became the focus of fierce jockeying. (Still today: In an attempt to assert that it was always the oracle of the PDB, the CIA maintains that its publications Current Intelligence Bulletin and Central Intelligence Bulletin, precursors to the National Intelligence Daily, all lower-level organs, were “PDBs.”) Responsible for the actual information utilized in the PDB the CIA sought to gain control over the drafting. They succeeded when John F. Kennedy occupied the White House. The PICKLs, as they were then known, were delivered by the president’s military aide, General Chester V. Clifton. Then a focus of infighting became who would be present when the president received his daily dollop of intel. McGeorge Bundy often attended, Walt Rostow wanted to be a recipient of the document himself, Henry Kissinger did not want the PDB delivered if he wasn’t there to hear it; Zbigniew Brzezinski, I am told, sought to prevent CIA director Stansfield Turner from delivering the document, to take over the delivery duty himself, or at least be there for the event. In Ronald Reagan’s time security advisers did not trust the president to understand the issues and were almost always in attendance.
Bill Clinton started off by reading PDBs as part of his morning national security briefing. Then he read them only when he was in Washington, often cancelling the remainder of the briefings. People at the agency got the sense the president was not interested. When that got reported in the media, Clinton made a show of the PDBs, receiving them together with Vice-President Al Gore, both their national security advisers, and deputies, and White House chief of staff Leon Panetta. George W. Bush read the documents and plied his CIA briefer with questions. Bush’s father, having once headed the CIA, paid careful attention to the PDBs. Barack Obama has the big multi-official palavers on Friday mornings and small briefings every day. (See more on the PDBs and see some samples on the National Security Archive website, http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/.)
The CIA might have gotten control of the process, but it had no handle on the president’s interests. The customer has always been the problem for the intel pookies. President Kennedy would question Mac Bundy or General Clifton and they would pass the queries along to the agency. LBJ went through Rostow and Nixon through Kissinger. Carter often relied upon Vice-President Walter Mondale, who had been a member of the Church Committee, as his conduit to the intelligence agencies. CIA director Bill Casey heard President Reagan express a desire for more information on Poland and had the PDB redesigned to include a special Polish section. Casey arranged for Richard Lehman, head of his PDB unit and the designated briefer, to discuss the president’s mood and concerns after his return each day. These “backbriefs” have remained the standard procedure ever since. (After Bill Clinton appeared to shun PDB reports the CIA tried spicing them up with foreign inside gossip and direct reporting from clandestine sources.) The final printed edition of the PDB went to the White House on February 15, 2014. Mr. Obama now receives his daily intel on a secure tablet.
With whatever exceptions exist, all this vein of rich historical material will remain classified even after today. I say “opened for research” because those who control declassification at the agency have demonstrated a proclivity for gutting the record in the name of information security. The big brass aren’t coming to Austin to give out the PDBs, only to acknowledge they have become fair game in the secrecy jousts.
Return, with me, to the days of Clinton, when the Cold War had ended and the winds were so fair that a serious political philosopher could ventilate about the “end of history.” Secrecy was already a problem then, and Clinton recognized it with a project to institute “automatic declassification” of records older than 25 years, with “exceptions” to be carved out by agencies requesting “exemptions.” The overall project failed (the Air Force and CIA claimed exemptions for 100% of their work), but the specific angle for the Presidential Daily Briefs was CIA boss George Tenet’s assertion that the PDBs needed secrecy to protect intelligence sources and methods. That marked the beginning of an Alice in Wonderland story that ended only today.
“Sources and methods” are spookspeak for intelligence tradecraft or for specific agent identifications or information compartments (such as overhead imagery, communications intelligence, or the like). But the PDBs are information reports, not efforts to create new intel channels or technologies. Names of agents and whatnot can easily be removed from ancient documents or are, in a number of instances, already known from the CIA’s declassification of specific cases. (For example, Tenet asserted sources and methods protection for PICKLs of the Cuban Missile Crisis in spite of the fact the agency had already released portions of those very documents, plus the actual transcripts of interviews with its Soviet spy Oleg Penkovskiy, whose information lay at the heart of that reporting.) A number of PDBs, bearing on Vietnam, Chinese nuclear weapons, the Six-Day war in the Middle East, and other subjects had already been declassified, with the secrecy apparatus considering them as simple information reports. Currying favor with the press and enhancing his stature as maven of top-level information, Henry Kissinger permitted the PDB to be photographed, a picture published in Newsweek on November 22, 1971. There’s no way a true “sources and methods” issue would have been treated in such a cavalier fashion. But suddenly the sources and methods bugaboo descended to chill the entire declassification process.
In 2004 the National Security Archive joined scholar Larry Berman to challenge this idiocy. Berman had requested and had been denied release of a pair of innocuous PDBs. The Archive joined him in a lawsuit for release of the material as is provided under the Freedom of Information Act. Though we lost the suit for the two specific PDBs in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in 2007, the justices ruled that CIA could no longer claim a blanket exemption for the class of documents, and that PDBs from the Kennedy and Johnson eras had to be considered for release.
What is happening at the LBJ Library today is a direct result of that court battle. Notice that the agency took its sweet time–8 years– to cough up any of this material. Without seeing the rest of the documents I nevertheless expect the collection will be laced with redacted passages, pages, and whole documents. The organizers of this event promise that PDBs will be posted on the CIA website, presumably today after the event. I have argued elsewhere that the agency’s declassification process has been corrupted. It functions to protect proper secrets only at the margin and is far more concerned with preventing embarrassment–a stance explicitly prohibited in the regulations supposed to govern secrecy and declassification. I’ll have more to report on the PDBs once I get the chance to see what the agency has done.