CIA releases top-secret documents from Kennedy, Johnson administrations

AUSTIN (KXAN) — For the first time in history, the Central Intelligence Agency released classified documents only U.S. presidents and a small group of people have had access to previously.

Wednesday morning the director of the CIA told a crowd at the LBJ Presidential Library, during a release event, that the declassified documents are the President’s Daily Brief from the John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Baines Johnson administration.

The CIA said after President Obama signed an Executive Order in 2009 to expand government transparency, all classified material automatically undergo declassification review and release after 25 years.

“Deciding when a secret is no longer a secret is a difficult task,” explained Joseph Lambert, CIA Director of Information Management Services.

Officials said there are exceptions for different circumstances of what can be released.

The CIA said an “inter-agency team conducted a painstaking review of each President’s Daily Brief to ensure that information that could harm national security was properly redacted.”

They plan to release Presidential Daily Briefings from the Ford and Nixon administrations in 2016.

What is a President’s Daily Brief?

The President’s Daily Brief, also known as the PDB, is a classified document the President receives every morning with an analysis of top concerns brought to his attention.

“Today the PDB is the most abundantly staffed, most deeply sourced, daily information service in the world,” said John Brennan, Director of the CIA. “It provides the President with a wealth of insight and analysis with virtually every issue on his foreign policy agenda.”

What’s inside

The briefs released on Wednesday hold details about some of the country’s most turbulent times.

The CIA released more than 2,500 of those documents from 1961 to 1969, which are located on their website in chronological order.

From the Cuban Missile Crisis, a new regime in Syria, Kennedy’s assassination, the Soviet Union and Vietnam, to Robert Kennedy’s assassination, the PDB gave insight into the information the President received which shed light as to possibly why a President chose one direction over another.

A brief for President Kennedy from Oct. 9, 1962 shows a map of Cuba where intelligence believe there are confirmed surface-to-air missile (SAM) sites. “More SAM sites along the north coast.  They will close one of the few remaining gaps in missile coverage of the island,” reads the document.

In a report from Oct. 26, 1962, President Kennedy was alerted to the Navy forcing a Soviet Submarine to the surface about 350 miles from Bermuda. The brief addressed the “Cuban Problem” with statements like, “Havana remains quiet, but the prevailing atmosphere is one of slowly rising tension.”

“Bullfight critics ranked in row crowd
the enormous plaza full;
But only one is there who knows
And he’s the man who fights the bull.” —Poem cited in daily brief

When Kennedy was assassinated, the brief writers dedicated the page to him stating, “For this day, the Checklist Staff can find no words more fitting than a verse quoted by the President to a group of newspapermen the day he learned of the presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba.”

Two days after the assassination, the brief was for President Johnson, giving him background on Lee Harvey Oswald.

Press stories to the effect that Lee Harvey Oswald recently visited Mexico City are true, according to our information.  Oswald visited both the Cuban and the Soviet embassies on 28 Sept.  He was trying, we were told, to arrange for visas so that he could travel to the USSR via Havana.”

President Kennedy created initial briefings

Brennan explained the history of the President’s Daily Brief starting with how it came to life.

He said President Kennedy wanted a better way to stay informed after he was caught off guard by several developments on the intelligence front with the Bay of Pigs in April 1961.

Kennedy asked for a simple concise summary of information from the CIA involving national security interests that deserved the President’s attention.

The President’s Intelligent Checklist, also know as the “PICL” or “Pickle” for short, was born June 1961.

“The Idea was so successful that it has endured in various forms under ten Presidents and today it’s such a vital part of how the White House operates, that one could hardly imagine the Presidency without it,” said Brennan.

The story of the PDB begins more than 50 years ago at President Kennedy’s weekend retreat near the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.  It was June 17, 1961 and an aid 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,” explained Brennan.

After reading the first brief, President Kennedy said he was pleased with it and the
“PICL” became more in-depth.  The idea was built in a matter of a couple days and became a routine for the President every morning.

Difference in documents today compared to the 1960s

Brennan said what works for one President rarely works for the next because they each have a way they want the briefing to be written and delivered.

During the Kennedy Administration, the PICL only went to the President and the director of Central Intelligence and later to the secretaries of state and defense.

The second-in-command, Vice President Johnson at the time, was left out of the loop.

“One of Kennedy’s aids told the agency that under no circumstances should the check list be given to Johnson,” said Brennan. “So when Johnson took office agency editors had no idea about the subjects they had been writing about in the check list, it was clear he needed more background information than Kennedy did.”

The PICL became the President’s Daily Brief when Lyndon B. Johnson became president after Kennedy was assassinated.

Brennan said Johnson was not reading the checklist and had liked receiving intelligence informally instead of from written documents.

“Johnson may have harbored a built-in bias against the checklist since it had been deliberately held from him when he was Vice President,” said Brennan. “The main problem was the format, the check list had been created for President Kennedy and designed to match his preferences and work habits rather than those of Johnson.”

The briefing went through a makeover and became the PDB on Dec. 1, 1964.

PDB Language

“One of the clearest difference is writing style, back then the articles were full of colorful language and personal notes that would never make it past a PDB editor today,” said Brennan.

For example, a report about the harassment of diplomats in China said, “A mob kept one ambassador in his car for 10 hours, causing him to ruin both his clothing and the upholstery.”

The CIA said the PDB was never intended to be the only intelligence source for the President and never has been.
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