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New Tet Documents? Not So Much.

August 7, 2018

The Tet Declassification Project inexplicably posts documents that have been previously released with far fewer redactions, such as this November 14, 1967 PDB.

In one of his last actions as Director of National Intelligence, in December 2016 James R. Clapper announced a new declassification review of secret intelligence records on the Tet Offensive, in Vietnam in 1968. I remember thinking at the time how odd it was that something that had been so extensively researched could be conceived of as either a contribution to current events, or to transparency for the intelligence community in the 21st Century.

It turns out that the story is both more—and less—than what I originally appreciated. Clapper did not actually order the Tet review. What he did do was to instruct a panel of intelligence community historians to recommend topics for declassification and release—to quote the official press release, “as a part of the [intelligence community’s] continuing efforts to enhance public understanding” of its activities. Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats made the decision to have agencies “identify classified records pertaining to the Tet Offensive and review them for declassification.” The first set of these records was made public on July 29.

Looking over this first batch of two hundred documents, I have to wonder what took all this time to accomplish. Perhaps it was the pretty website at It certainly was not “review and declassification”—I’ll come back to that in a moment. Nor was it comprehensivity. There is some value in bringing together a bunch of this Tet material in one place, but beyond that the collection is a grab bag, assembled in only a general chronological order, and missing key material which exists, but presumably is being held back for future releases planned for January and April 2019.

The virtue of the documents here is that they remind us that Tet was a surprise, Walt Rostow’s protestations to the contrary. A declassified record of President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and senior advisers on January 29, 1968—24 hours ahead of the attack—shows the president’s concern with attacks in Vietnam wholly centered on Khe Sanh, with the rest of his attention drawn to the military resources available to respond to North Korea’s seizure of the spyship U.S.S. Pueblo.

Not a high quality reproduction.

That may be a new record, I would need to do a more extensive check to be sure. But almost everything else here—the CIA postmortem on the surprise, the November cable from agency analysts in Saigon giving the warning Rostow did not take, the reports on Hanoi’s views of negotiations, and much more, was already on the record. What appears to be new is primarily spot reporting on individual photo reconnaissance missions, which are nice, but very much down in the weeds. It is an index of the lack of care lavished on this project that, even here, where intelligence community reviewers could have gone into the records to obtain fresh, current-technology reproductions of the aerial photographs they are featuring, and the section maps which show the land overflown, we instead find fifteenth-generation photocopies which are completely useless. Such documents are quite unlikely to attract the public’s attention, hence will hardly contribute to the public’s understanding of intelligence.

Higher-level material is where the public can learn more, but here the declassification is missing from the review. I will offer only five examples, though the first is a multi-document set. Dated from February 2, 1968 (though the date of the first of this series is January 10), these intelligence memoranda, mostly from CIA’s Office of Current Intelligence, relate to the North Vietnamese threat to Khe Sanh. There is some good information here. In fact I used it in a book I published in 1991. The Khe Sanh documents were declassified under FOIA in July 1985. While the documents in this set bear a declassification date of July 26, 2018, the redactions in the material are identical to the ones in the copies I have had on file for decades. In fact the images in the new release appear to be from the very same copy of the papers.

Next, consider the Special National Intelligence Estimate (SNIE) 14.3-67 on the North Vietnamese and Liberation Front strength. The copy in my file was declassified on May 7, 1984. This SNIE is the one at the heart of the fierce dispute between the CIA and U.S. military commanders about the enemy “order of battle.” It became a focus of the Westmoreland v. CBS trial in the 1980s, and in fact was originally released to be trial evidence. The page that was withheld in 1984 is still missing from the copy released in July 2018.

More needless redactions found in this January 2, 1968 PDB.

How about the President’s Daily Brief (PDB)? The CIA made a big show of releasing this material a few years ago, even hosting a conference at the Johnson Library in Austin, Texas. I noted at the time that this wasn’t really releasing the PDBs, rather the bureaucrats were simply opening up these files for further declassification work as scholars filed new review requests. That continues to be true. But the Tet collection is actually a step backwards. The people who assembled this Tet collection removed previously declassified text that had been already released—everything that was not about Vietnam. I selected three dates at random from the Tet collection. The PDB for November 2, 1967 contains material on Soviet ballistic missile defense radars, the USSR, the Congo, and Panama which is not present in the version included in the Tet collection. The PDB for November 14, 1967 covers Russia and Algeria, except if you look at the copy with the Tet papers. The PDB edition of January 2, 1968 contains material on the USSR, Yemen, Iran, and Finland, except that you won’t read it here. And woe to anyone who asks for new declassifications based on the versions of these documents in the Tet collection. All those items just mentioned would be reviewed as if they were classified.

This is a serious matter. Openness and transparency are seriously underfunded in the United States government as it is. Some proportion of those scarce resources have been diverted for 18 months into a project that accomplishes little, if anything. When the DNI says “review and declassify” that should mean what it says—more than cursory tweaks to a few documents while assembling others for scanning.


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