CIA Declassifies 2,500 Presidential Briefings From 1960s

 

The CIA this month released an unprecedented trove of 1960s Top Secret presidential briefings after years of litigation by the National Security Archive at George Washington University.

Both the Archive and the CIA announced the disclosure with fanfare.

"Today the CIA LogoCIA and the LBJ Library are releasing online a collection of 2,500 declassified President's Daily Briefs (PDBs) from the Kennedy and Johnson administrations," said Archive President Thomas Blanton in a statement, President's Daily Briefs from Kennedy and Johnson Finally Released.

"The PDBs," the statement continued, "are Top Secret documents containing the most current and significant intelligence information that the CIA believes that the President needs to know, and are records that CIA Director George Tenet once claimed could never be released for publication 'no matter how old or historically significant it may be,' and that White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer described as 'the most highly sensitized classified document in the government.'"

The CIA also promoted the release as an example of transparency.

Barack Obama and James Clapper (White House Photo) CIA Director John O Brennan and White House National Director of National Intelligence James Clapper (shown in a White House file photo with President Obama) were among intelligence leaders speaking Sept. 16 at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library at the University of Texas in Austin.

They described the unprecedented release of the briefing papers, available for study via the library's research department. An estimated 20 to 25 percent of the contents remain redacted to protect secrets.

Our Justice Integrity Project announced the document release when it occurred in our front-page daily news summaries. The importance of the release merits this fuller treatment. Today's column provides an overview of the document release.

In coming days, we shall analyze news commentaries, especially a debate arising over a controversial PDB whereby the CIA claimed that accused presidential assassin Lee Harvey Oswald visited two Communists embassies on Sept. 28, 1963, nearly two months before President Kennedy was murdered in Dallas. Many experts believe the CIA falsely reported Oswald's appearance to Johnson.

"It is difficult to overstate the importance of what is usually called the 'Oswald in Mexico City' affair," according to a 2002 online JFK history by the prominent researcher and archivist Rex Bradford, director of the Mary Ferrell Foundation. "Mexico City is indeed the Rosetta Stone of the JFK assassination."

For now, we continue our report on the overall document release. 

"On his first full day in office," Brennan said in opening ceremonies at the LBJ Library, "President Obama called on the heads of executive departments and agencies to build an unprecedented level of openness in our government. He made it known that giving the American people a clear picture of the work done on their behalf — consistent with common sense and the legitimate requirements of national security — would be a touchstone of this administration."

Brennan (shown below in an official photo) continued:

In light of this new approach — and pursuant to an Executive Order outlining new classification and declassification guidelines — CIA information management officers worked with their counterparts at the National Security Council and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to start the review and declassification of PDBs that were more than 40 years old.

John BrennanAnd today, for the first time ever, the Central Intelligence Agency is releasing en masse declassified copies of the President’s Daily Brief and its predecessor publications — some 2,500 documents from the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. This is just the beginning — some 2,000 additional declassified PDB documents from the Nixon and Ford administrations will be released next year, and the process will continue.

The PDB is among the most highly classified and sensitive documents in all of government. It represents the Intelligence Community’s daily dialog with the President in addressing challenges and seizing opportunities related to our national security. And for students of history, the declassified briefs will lend insight into why a President chooses one path over another when it comes to statecraft. The release of these documents affirms that the world’s greatest democracy does not keep secrets merely for secrecy’s sake. Whenever we can shed light on the work of our government without harming national security, we will do so.

Brennan described also how the PDBs began under President Kennedy (shown in a file photo) in his first months in office in 1961 because he wanted a better summary of the country's far-flung intelligence operations. 

Senator John F. Kennedy 1959 Senate office Look Magazine JFK Library"The story of the PDB," Brennan said, "begins more than fifty years ago, at President Kennedy’s weekend retreat near the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia. It was June 17th, 1961, and an aide had just arrived from Washington carrying a Top Secret document. The President sat down to read it next to the swimming pool, perched on the edge of the diving board."

"The document was seven pages long and printed on short, square blocks of paper, with spiral binding along the top. Inside were two maps, a few notes, and 14 intelligence briefs, most no more than two sentences in length, on topics ranging from Laos to Cuba to Khrushchev. After reading the document, the President sent word that he was pleased with the contents. An aide contacted the officers at CIA who had written it and said: “So far, so good.”

"This was the very first issue of what would become the PDB. The publication quickly became a must-read for President Kennedy, and it set in motion a routine for delivering intelligence to the Oval Office that has been at the heart of CIA’s mission ever since."

Among others speaking in Austin about the document release were Clapper, former CIA Director Porter Goss and Deputy Director Bobby Ray Inman, and retired Admiral William McRaven, chancellor of the University of Texas System.

Brennan began his remarks by saying, "Having spent some wonderful years as a student at UT — and still a proud Longhorn — it is my very great pleasure to be back in Austin." His full remarks are available at Brennan Delivers Keynote at President's Daily Brief Public Release Event.

In contrast, the National Security Archive emphasized its long litigation effort under the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to obtain the documents.

"The release of this collection of PDBs," said its news release, "comes eight years after the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the National Security Archive and Professor Larry Berman, then a professor of political science at University of California Davis, now based at George State University, in his efforts to obtain the disclosure of two Presidential Daily Briefs written for President Lyndon B. Johnson in the 1960s. Professor Berman and the Archive were represented by Thomas R. Burke and Duffy Carolan of the law firm Davis Wright Tremaine LLP in San Francisco, CA. In its ruling, the Court noted — without viewing the documents — that their disclosure could "reveal protected intelligence sources and methods." The Court rejected, however, the CIA's "attempt to create a per se status exemption for PDBs."

"Today the National Security Archive is proud to post a compilation of our ongoing work to shed light on these important documents. The collection is comprised of dozens of records and the Ninth Circuit Court ruling, which paved the way for today's disclosure."

Politico, in a column 13 newly released CIA presidential briefs from the 1960s you'll want to read, and the Kennedy presidential blog JFKFacts.org were among other commentators this month on the overall significance of the document release. We shall resume our coverage shortly with a focus on the controversy regarding the CIA's claim described in a document that accused Kennedy assassin Lee Harvey Oswald visited the Soviet and Cuban embassies in Mexico City on Sept. 28, 1963.

 
 
Contact the author Andrew Kreig
 
 

 

 

Related News Coverage

CIA, Brennan Delivers Keynote at President's Daily Brief Public Release Event, John O. Brennan, Sept. 16, 2015. Remarks as Prepared for Delivery CIA Director John O. Brennan at the President’s Daily Brief Public Release, LBJ Library in Austin, Texas. I want to thank Mark [Updegrove, LBJ Library Director] and his excellent staff for hosting today’s event. When President Johnson dedicated this library, he said, “It is all here… the story of our time with the bark off.” You can’t get much further below the bark than Top Secret intelligence reports, so I think President Johnson would approve of today’s proceedings."

National Security Archive, President's Daily Briefs from Kennedy and Johnson Finally Released (Eight Years After Archive, Professor Larry Berman Lawsuit), Thomas S. Blanton and Lauren Harper, Sept. 16, 2016. Today the CIA and the LBJ Library are releasing online a collection of 2,500 declassified President's Daily Briefs (PDBs) from the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. The PDBs are Top Secret documents containing the most current and significant intelligence information that the CIA believes that the President needs to know, and are records that CIA Director George Tenet once claimed could never be released for publication "no matter how old or historically significant it may be," and that White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer described as "the most highly sensitized classified document in the government."

The release of this collection of PDBs comes eight years after the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the National Security Archive and Professor Larry Berman, then a professor of political science at University of California Davis, now based at George State University, in his efforts to obtain the disclosure of two Presidential Daily Briefs written for President Lyndon B. Johnson in the 1960s. Professor Berman and the Archive were represented by Thomas R. Burke and Duffy Carolan of the law firm Davis Wright Tremaine LLP in San Francisco, CA. In its ruling, the Court noted -- without viewing the documents -- that their disclosure could "reveal protected intelligence sources and methods." The Court rejected, however, the CIA's "attempt to create a per se status exemption for PDBs." Today the National Security Archive is proud to post a compilation of our ongoing work to shed light on these important documents. The collection is comprised of dozens of records and the Ninth Circuit Court ruling, which paved the way for today's disclosure.

Politico, 13 newly released CIA presidential briefs from the 1960s you'll want to read, Josh Gerstein, Sept. 16, 2015. The briefings detail the evolution of the war in Vietnam and responses to such events as the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Six-Day War in the Middle East. After decades of stiff resistance, the CIA on Wednesday released about 2,500 President’s Daily Briefs and similar reports delivered to Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson during a nearly eight-year span in the 1960s. The briefings detail the evolution of the war in Vietnam and responses to such events as the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Six-Day War in the Middle East. The mass release Wednesday came despite past vows from the CIA to fiercely defend the secrecy of PDBs. Then-CIA Director George Tenet declared in 2000 that no PDB should be released “no matter how old or historically significant it may be."

The National Security Archive's continually growing collection of Electronic Briefing Books (EBBs) provide timely online access to critical declassified records on issues including U.S. national security, foreign policy, diplomatic and military history, intelligence policy, and much more. Updated frequently, the EBBs represent just a small sample of the documents in our published and unpublished collections. Along with hundreds of EBBs, Archive publications also include the Digital National Security Archive, a digitized library of more than 40 meticulously researched collections compiled by top experts and scholars documenting critical world events from post World War II through the 21st century, and more than 70 books written by Archive staff and fellows.

Thomas BlantonThomas S. Blanton (shown in an Archive photo) is Director of the National Security Archive at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. The Archive won U.S. journalism's George Polk Award in April 2000 for "piercing self-serving veils of government secrecy, guiding journalists in search for the truth, and informing us all." The Los Angeles Times (16 January 2001) described the Archive as "the world's largest nongovernmental library of declassified documents." Blanton served as the Archive's first Director of Planning & Research beginning in 1986, became Deputy Director in 1989, and Executive Director in 1992. He filed his first Freedom of Information Act request in 1976 as a weekly newspaper reporter in Minnesota; and among many hundreds subsequently, he filed the FOIA request and subsequent lawsuit (with Public Citizen Litigation Group) that forced the release of Oliver North's Iran-contra diaries in 1990.

His books include White House E-Mail: The Top Secret Computer Messages the Reagan-Bush White House Tried to Destroy (New York: The New Press, 1995, 254 pp. + computer disk), which the New York Times described as "a stream of insights into past American policy, spiced with depictions of White House officials in poses they would never adopt for a formal portrait." He co-authored The Chronology (New York: Warner Books, 1987, 687 pp.) on the Iran-contra affair, and served as a contributing author to three editions of the ACLU's authoritative guide, Litigation Under the Federal Open Government Laws, and to the Brookings Institution study Atomic Audit: The Costs and Consequences of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Since 1940 (Washington, D.C.: Brookings, 1998, 680 pp.). His latest book, , co-authored with Svetlana Savranskaya and Vladislav Zubok, won the Arthur S. Link-Warren F. Kuehl Prize for Documentary Editing of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations.