Blogs > Cliopatria > So the Presidential Daily Brief Is too Sensitive to Be Released to the 9-11 Commission?

Aug 8, 2005 1:02 pm

So the Presidential Daily Brief Is too Sensitive to Be Released to the 9-11 Commission?

Thomas Blanton, director of the George Polk Award-winning National Security Archive at George Washington University, in Slate (March 22, 2004):

From its inception, the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States , an independent body created by Congress to investigate 9/11, has had to fight with the Bush White House over everything from the length of time it will have to do its work to which administration officials will testify in public. But the most contentious and long-running conflict has focused on the commission's access or lack thereof to the Presidential Daily Briefs.

The PDB is the CIA's top-of-the-line product, a secret intelligence report prepared each morning for the president. Ari Fleischer, the former White House spokesman, has called the PDB "the most highly sensitized classified document in the government." Vice President Dick Cheney has called it "the family jewels." Elizabeth Rindskopf Parker, a former general counsel to the Central Intelligence Agency, has called it "sacrosanct" and"something you never, ever share." Even the commission's chairman, former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean, has said ,"To make those available to an outside group is something that no other president has done in our history." After much sturm und drang , a compromise was worked out allowing three commission members and the staff director to see the originals of the PDBs from the Bush and Clinton years and then write up a summary for their peers.

This is far too restrictive. Contrary to all the cloak-and-dagger talk, the PDB is less James Bond than Headline News, based on the CIA's best information on world events, spiced up with intercepted communications and spy photos. According to the CIA's own history of its presidential briefings , roughly 40 percent of what the PDB covers is addressed in the newspapers. Walter Pincus of the Washington Post reported in 2002 that President Clinton used to complain that"most days the PDB contained material he had already read elsewhere." Thousands, and perhaps even millions, of code-worded documents and compartments are more highly classified than the PDB.

How do I know this? Because 10 PDBs from the Johnson administration are in the public domain, officially declassified by the U.S. government. (The National Security Archive has just posted them online .) The CIA established the Presidential Daily Brief under that name in 1964, and PDBs from the Johnson administration began to be declassified in 1985, during the tenure of President Ronald Reagan. The declassified PDBs contain such extraordinarily sensitive items as this one on Egypt:"Nasir, in a speech to the nation on Saturday, outlined a 'program of action' to bring about political reform. We doubt that it will amount to much." That's the whole item. Another supersensitive entry concerns the head of state of Indonesia:"Despite Sukarno's long-standing kidney ailment, for which he delays proper treatment, he has seemed quite chipper lately." Three lines of the item are blacked out because they refer to the sources of the intelligence, perhaps Indonesian assets of the CIA or communications intercepts (or maybe just the British ambassador). One of the PDBs is even published in the latest volume of the distinguished State Department documentary series Foreign Relations of the United States .

Many presidential briefings at least as sensitive, and far more deliberative, than the PDBs have reached the public domain without damaging national security. These range from declassified copies of Henry Kissinger's morning briefings for President Nixon to verbatim quotes from CIA Director William Webster and National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft's briefings for President George H.W. Bush. The latter appear in A World Transformed , a 1998 memoir co-authored by Bush and Scowcroft.

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