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President’s Daily Briefs Still in the Closet

September 30, 2020
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The other day I was working on a posting about John F. Kennedy’s decisions on the Vietnam war, and I had occasion to include one of the “President’s Daily Briefs” (PDBs), the super top secret personal reports the CIA and other intelligence agencies assemble every day for our senior executive. You may recall that in September 2015, when the CIA began to release this series of documents, they made a big splash of it, complete with a conference at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library. The text of the PDB I selected for my subject was nearly complete, missing just two critical attributions for statements. Now, I had surveyed a number of the PDBs at the time of the release, arguing in a piece on my website, and here in UNREDACTED, that actual declassification of the PDBs had not been accomplished and was indeed in its infancy because crucial content in the reports was being routinely censored for spurious reasons. As a test, I took the PDB I selected and looked up that date in the relevant volume of the series Foreign Relations of the United States. There, in an editor’s note, were the very attributions that had been slashed out of the PDB. That volume of FRUS was published in 1991.

Two points. First, classified material selected to be included in the Foreign Relations series undergoes full review prior to its release, so in in its highly-touted 2015 re-release, the CIA was re-classifying material that had been in the public domain—in fact in print—for nearly a quarter of a century. Second, the CIA was taking another bite of the apple. Public spokespersons for a variety of Washington entities have been fond lately of claiming raising questions about anything amounts to re-litigating. Here CIA does that on a routine basis.

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

My earlier complaint had been that CIA was taking credit for declassification work it had hardly done. Take, for example, the PDB of November 14, 1967, declassified on June 28, 2018—now half a century. Of its thirteen pages only a smattering—two—were released. All of it was on Vietnam. Every other subject was supposedly secret. This kind of tunnel vision is very common. Look at the PDBs from the 1967 Six Day War in the Middle East. In the five days from June 5 through June 9, the Middle East text is almost the only substance opened. That had been opened in 1993. In 2015, leaving the PDB in that state ought to have raised questions.

I thought it might be useful to take a fresh look at the PDBs from the perspective of these kinds of shenanigans. We have a basis for comparison because, before the PDBs were re-framed as being so secret, they were regularly subjects of declassification action. At least seventeen were in the public domain before the agency made its series releases. Ten of them the National Security Archive featured in an Electronic Briefing Book in 2004, when Dr. Larry Berman was suing for PDB release under the Freedom of Information Act. I took documents we had in hand and compared them with the series-release versions from 2015 and later. The results are uneven. The most common result is no difference between then and later. For example, the June 8, 1967 PDB was “declassified” in 1985, 1993, and 2015. The text is the same. The April 1, 1968 PDB? That was declassified in 1989 and 2015. The same. May 29, 1967? That was declassified in 2004 and in 2015 without change. Agency censors took credit for work done long ago, to which they added nothing.

February 15, 1962 President’s Intelligence Checklist (“PICL”)

Worse are the cases where work actually was done. Let’s start with the February 15, 1962 President’s Intelligence Checklist (as the PDB was known until 1964). It was declassified in January 1990 and again in July 2015. The censors gutted this document in 1990. An initial section on incidents in the air corridors to West Berlin was all cut. In 2015, when this text was restored, it was revealed to have been about several U.S. and French government and private aircraft that had been threatened, though not attacked. The rules for keeping things secret specify that information can be redacted if its release poses a demonstrable threat to the national security of the United States. By 1990 the Berlin Wall had fallen, East and West Germany were on the path to reunification, West Germany was negotiating a Soviet withdrawal from the East, and the whole Cold War had begun winding down. That details of aerial incidents in the foggy past of 1962 threatened national security in 1990 is plain silly. The reverse is also true. The PICKL (also abbreviated as PICL) that day had an item on Laos that recorded political maneuvering between Prime Minister Souvanna Phouma and military strongman Phoumi Nosavan, then a U.S. favorite. The 1990 version of the PICKL contained the full item. It was a routine iteration of some of the stunts common in Laos—Phoumi wanted to block Souvanna’s visit to the king. The 2015 the entire text regarding Phoumi is censored. How its release would damage the national security after 25 years already in public is the puzzle. Classification operates in a bizarre fashion.

There are further examples but its better to move on. The August 7, 1965 PDB (by then it was the PDB) was declassified in July 1993 and again on September 10, 2015. In the PDB one item reported the loss of a couple of Taiwanese patrol boats in the Formosa Straits, and that one of them had radioed of sinking several targets. In the 2015 redaction the part about the patrol boats sinking targets was cut. What was the national security damage there? That PDB also contained an item on the Dominican Republic that mentioned rebel extremists were attempting to recruit youths from the countryside. Censors in 2015 clipped out that whole text. National security damage? I’ll venture none.

The November 5, 1966 PDB declassified in 1992.

And the same PDB declassified again in 2015.

Here’s the PDB for November 5, 1966, which was declassified under a request filed at the Lyndon B. Johnson Library in 1992, and again on July 24, 1915. The 1992 release reported that communist China had carried out a 4th nuclear test, which apparently took Russia by surprise (the discussion of which the censors deleted). In 2015 the censors cut the entire item. The PRC nuclear test was a matter of public record since geologists routinely monitor for seismic shocks and radiological effects of nuclear blasts. That did not prevent the cut. The PDB also reported on German politics, where the chancellor was stepping down. In 1992 about ¾ of a line was cut, but in 2015 the cut expanded to six lines, including the part where CIA recorded who the chancellor favored as his successor. Damage to U.S. security? Nil.

The biggest howler? The same PDB had a pretty long item, most of a page in the original, about the British defense budget. This was a much-discussed subject in the 1960s—the British military position “East of Suez.” Whole books were written about it, along with journal articles, scholarly papers, think tank publications, talks at conferences, and more. A run on the pound sterling and on British gold was in the open, even being manipulated in U.S. foreign policy. Here the PDB speculates that before the British could finalize their budget they might have to have another “Great Debate” on the issue of Europe versus the Far East. The CIA credited U.S. and Australian political pressures as keeping the British engaged, and implied London had come to the end of its rope by saying it might “have to present the US with a basic decision on the issue.” In 2015 this entire passage was regarded as so sensitive it was made secret when the PDB was released. The markings (censors are supposed to note the reason something is secret) indicate foreign government information.

That may be, but something isn’t secret just because an Englishman told it to me. It had to be actually secret. That the British needed to have a debate? No secret there. That American and Australian encouragement kept British shoulders to the wheel? That was a bit of political analysis anyone could add. That the British would have to come to a decision and inform Washington? A conclusion that follows the postulates. Again, anyone could have come to it. You tell me what was the damage to U.S. national security.

Big declassification projects like the one for the PDBs soak up money, as well as the experts who work on declassification. When the projects spin wheels by not doing any new declassification they are wasting money and staff work. When they spend money to reclassify material that has already been released, especially on silly or spurious grounds, they go beyond waste. There are thousands of these PDBs, and so far only the ones for Presidents Kennedy through Ford are accessible. The CIA has long displayed a predilection for re-litigating secrecy and it’s doing that again here. Every single one of these (mostly) daily reports is going to have to be individually evaluated for classified information under the present system. Then there will be the appeals—another round. Then the re-request when the first attempt is denied. And so on. It’s time to change the system. Bulk declassification is the only possible solution.

The United States government is drowning in secret documents that cost money to protect. Funds for declassifying government records are limited. Every round of secrecy review costs money—and the daily protection of the secrets costs more. In the past few years, along with cuts in the budget for the National Archives and Records Administration, the overall situation has become quite worrisome. When a big thing like the PDB project merely opens up the document for more requests it is actually generating even more costs. The original secrets still have to be protected. Every reclassified piece of information adds to the price-tag. Space must be found for the gerrymandered copies of the documents. Money will have to be found for the re-reviews that may, someday, open up full documents. To repeat, bulk declassification is the solution.

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