The Real Deal on PDBs
This article originally appeared JohnPrados.com, the website of National Security Archive Senior Fellow John Prados.
September 17,2015–I wanted to be wrong this time. I really did. I was hoping that the intelligence folks had broken with their past and were really doing what they said, releasing a mountain of information to permit historians and citizens to forge a new understanding of our past. What we have is a mountain of paper, with nuggets of new detail but vast expanses of gaps. You read it here first. Before the Spooks’ Show began in Austin yesterday I said that this material would be “opened for research,” and predicted the documents would be laced with deletions of words, sentences, passages and whole pages (“Freeing the President’s Daily Brief,” September 16, 2015). That’s exactly how it is.
Someone at the event held at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library used the figure 80 percent to quantify the amount of the material released. That claim is completely phony. It can only have been derived by including every blank back cover and front title page (and many of the 2,500 PDBs have four of them) as a page of declassified content. I’ll come back to secrecy in the PDBs further along but first there are points to be made about the practice of these CIA events and the specifics of this one.
Joe Lambert is the CIA official who runs the agency office called Information Management Services. This unit houses the CIA’s declassification unit, its Historical Review Panel, the Publications Review Board, and more. At Austin Lambert bragged the PDB event is the twenty-third such conference held by the agency since 2003, when one was organized around release of the agency’s official biography of Richard Helms. This would be admirable–or more admirable–except for the CIA’s penchant for taking double or triple credit for every thing it does. I noted in the last post how CIA had been forced into a review of the class of documents called PDBs as a result of court order. At Austin agency officials spoke as if the Historical Review Panel had noodled the idea of declassifying PDBs all by themselves. So they have to do the thing–so they have a “conference” to “release” the material.
This is not the first time. Not long ago another one of these conferences dealt with the CIA’s role in bringing Boris Pasternak’s novel Doctor Zhivago to the public. There, a reporter had FOIAed the documents on the CIA op, the agency looked good, it declassified, cooperated, and capitalized on the public’s surprise by holding the conference. At one conference on the Missile Gap most of the documents had been declassified previously, except for passages from the agency’s U-2 history it was being forced to relinquish. Veterans of the CIA proprietary Air America, originally called Civil Air Transport, were agitating to go public with their own history, and when they did that at one conference, CIA followed up with another. Caught holding lemons, each time the agency chooses to make lemonade. And those thousands of pages of cover sheets in the PDB? You can bet that when the time comes to report to overseers the amount of material the CIA has declassified this year, every one of those covers will count as content.
A few words on the actual event in Austin. The practice of hosting these kinds of events began under George Tenet, and at that time the conferences were authentic, with the CIA voluntarily choosing to release material, multiple panels to cover different facets of the material, bringing together numerous agency veterans and a significant number of outside historians. The conferences today are pro-forma, more often than not (though not always) focused on material coming to light by necessity. There may be just one panel. The panel itself may be indifferent to the material. In Austin CIA director John Brennan delivered the keynote address, marking this as one of the more serious CIA events. Brennan devoted roughly half his time to the present and future of CIA. He managed to layer in a bit of nice background on the real documents, but relied upon chief CIA historian David Robarge to make sure the bases were covered. Both Brennan and Bobby Inman, former deputy director of central intelligence, emphasized secrecy–Inman used part of his time to denounce Edward Snowden. John Helgerson, a former deputy director of the unit that produced the PDBs, talked about CIA briefings of presidential candidates. The most substantive of the panelists were former CIA director Porter Goss, who recounted spending more of his time on the PDBs than any other single task; and Peter Clement, an officer who has participated in all aspects of producing and briefing the PDB. William McRaven, the former SEAL chieftain who took down Osama bin Laden, spoke for fifteen minutes and said “PDB” exactly twice. The supposed outside historian, William Inboden, extolled the range of material. General James Clapper ended the day by gushing over Admiral McRaven, John Brennan, and Bobby Ray Inman.
As an introduction to the President’s Daily Briefs this event rated a C – at best. It gets an A as a demonstration of the CIA’s m.o.
Now to the material itself. You’ve heard me rail at the keepers of the keys in the secrecy system. In his remarks John Brennan talked of President Obama’s dedication to bringing the American people “a clear picture of the work done on their behalf–consistent with common sense and the legitimate requirements of national security.” I submit the PDBs demonstrate my concerns, not Mr. Brennan’s clear picture. Let me give a few examples.
Some historians consider October 27, 1962 the most dangerous day of the Cold War. Amid the Cuban Missile Crisis, with nuclear-tipped Soviet rockets attaining an operational status, anti-aircraft missiles shoot down a U.S. U-2 aircraft and the generals want to retaliate. The report to the president for that day has about half the Cuba item deleted. Among the crucial issues of this history which historians debate is whether or not the U.S. knew that the Soviets’ tactical missiles we called “FROGs” had nuclear warheads. The report specifies that photographic intelligence had found “FROGs” and then deletes the details and any analysis. It also deletes everything regarding Soviet ships bound for Cuba–where maps that illustrate precisely where every Russian vessel was located have long since been declassified. Roughly half of everything in the report on reactions to the crisis in the Soviet bloc is out. Director Brennan shook his head, during his speech, in wonderment that PDBs might contain comments on the reception of the New York City Ballet performing in Russia. It turns out that that item appears in this very report–and isn’t it perfectly understandable intelligence officers might want the president to hear that at this moment of extreme tension Russians were turning out for the ballet as if things were normal.
Much was made at the Austin event of the very first of these reports, handed to President Kennedy as he sat by his swimming pool. Deleted from that report is everything about Brazil, Japan, and Egypt. Actually, during the early 1960s Egypt fought a counterinsurgency war in Yemen. Survey the PDBs and you will find Egypt and Yemen material gutted at every turn. The presidential report for August 28, 1963 came at a time when Kennedy was considering CIA support for a coup against South Vietnamese dictator Ngo Dinh Diem. Excluding the back cover this report totals six pages. Though the Vietnam item remains largely intact, nearly four and a half pages of the rest are deleted save for a comment about European squabbles over Common Market poultry pricing. The coup actually took place on November 1 of that year. There the report is sparse on the coup, as the next day it is uncertain over the murder of Diem and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu.
In the August 31, 1965 PDB a full page is denied along with much of the substance of an item about fighting in Kashmir that started the Indo-Pakistani war of that year. Take out the cover, back page, and 1 1/2 pages deleted and the majority of this report is on the cutting room floor. Fast forward a year and we are in the run up to the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. The 11-page PDB for August 17, 1968–one of those with four pages of covers–loses another 4 1/2 pages to deletions including the item about the Czechs and East Germany.
Many of those extra covers result from President Johnson’s desire, continued for at least a year and starting in 1967, for a special section on North Vietnam. I surveyed 20 of these PDBs, including the ones just prior to the Tet Offensive and the Soviet invasion, but most at random. In nearly every case the North Vietnam material is gutted. Think about that for a minute. The secrecy rules provide that agencies must obtain specific presidential authorization to keep secret material over 50 years old. We are observing the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam escalation, and in three years we’ll be passing 50 on the whole Johnson presidency. The Vietnam war is over. South Vietnam doesn’t exist anymore. North Vietnam doesn’t exist anymore. Today we have the Socialist Republic of Vietnam (SRV). Granted that is the successor state to the old North, but that’s hardly enough. The secrecy regulations require identifiable damage to U.S. national security, and place this material in a category where the predisposition should be to release. American relations with the SRV are excellent. The revelation that the U.S. spied on North Vietnam during the war is not going to affect them. Not only is there no identifiable damage to the national security, all of this is in service of secrecy authorities that will soon sunset.
Quite a lot of the bases for secrecy I see in these redactions of the PDBs are equally flimsy, even where it relates to specific weapons. Where is the national security damage in showing what the report says about FROGs in Cuba? In contrast, the PDBs are laced with references to sources (as in “sources and methods”)–U.S. embassies and consulates, foreign politicians, BLACK ORCHID (SR-71/A-12 flights), and so on. Whatever the secrecy mavens think they’re up to, it isn’t protecting sources and methods–and it’s not what Bobby Inman thundered about yesterday.
Because of what was done here, every single PDB that was supposedly “declassified” yesterday will have to continue to live in an expensive SCIF–a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility–under 24 hour guard because it contains any secret information at all. Requests to release every little snippet in these documents will have to be separately decided, by platoons of officials. Same with the appeals after those officials deny. All that costs. The dollars add up. This is neither common sense nor is it a legitimate requirement of national security. Shame on John Brennan. Instead of Barak Obama sending the CIA flowery letters congratulating them for making this artificial concession to openness, he should be telling them to get on with the job.