On September 16th, 2015, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) formally declassified roughly twenty-five hundred President’s Daily Briefs (PDBs) from the Kennedy and Johnson administrations between 1961 and 1969. These documents are now accessible in the CIA’s Freedom of Information Act reading room. At the press conference held at the LBJ Library in Austin, Texas, CIA Director John Brennan said that this release means, “the world’s greatest democracy does not keep secrets merely for secrecy’s sake.” Many critics of American government secrecy would dispute this statement. Nonetheless, this release of PDB records is a significant step in the right direction and a valuable source for historians and scholars of US foreign policy toward the Middle East. Also, the records’ availability on the CIA website means that scholars seeking to use these valuable primary sources for research can easily search for and download them from the CIA’s website without needing to visit the National Archives or Presidential Libraries. This article will begin by examining the history of released US government documents and then seek to understand why the release of PDB records is so important for researchers seeking to understand US foreign policy.
In 1990, tension increased exponentially over the lack of publicly available US government documents. Prior to this, the Department of State’s Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) book series served to provide official US government documents; however, their release had generally been tardy. Eventually, in 1991, Congress and the State Department decided to create a formalized process regarding the release of documents. For a history of FRUS’s transparency, the Department of State has released an electronic book documenting this process. Nonetheless, FRUS has documents regarding US foreign policy, oil policy, environmental policy, and much more ranging from the nineteenth century all the way to 1980.
The development of FRUS coincided with another release of primary sources in 1985 titled “The National Security Archive.” The National Security Archive is an organization founded via the George Washington University that publishes US government documents. Essentially, this trove of sources are released via the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and The George Washington University. The collection is the largest, sorted source of declassified government documents available. These document collections include, but are not limited to: “Afghanistan: The Making of U.S. Policy;” “The Berlin Crisis, 1958-1962;” “CIA Covert Operations: From Carter to Obama, 1977-2010;” “The Kissinger Transcripts: A Verbatim Record of U.S. Diplomacy;” “Iran: The Making of U.S. Policy, 1977-1980;” “Iraqgate: Saddam Hussein, U.S. Policy and the Prelude to the Persian Gulf War, 1980-1984;” and many others. This set of documents works well with the aforementioned FRUS collection, especially because the FOIA documents provide an intelligence background to FRUS’s diplomatic sources.
Thus, one must ask the question, where do the PDBs fit within a research standpoint? Is there something that differentiates the PDB documents as useful compared to FRUS and the FOIA documents? As this paper will demonstrate, the CIA has prevented the release of these documents. Moreover, from a research perspective, it creates a sort of trifecta of available primary source documents. FRUS provides researchers the information necessary to understand the diplomatic conversations and why certain policies were enacted. On the other hand, the FOIA documents provide us with the intelligence background for foreign policy decisions. Yet, outside of limited FRUS discussions between presidents and their foreign policy cabinets, the available information on the daily discussions presidents were having regarding policy is limited. Outside-the-box research has used FRUS, FOIA, memoirs, and the Library of Congress documents to speculate what was being discussed. None of this information, however, gave researchers direct knowledge to what was occurring. Consequently, the PDBs are offering an even more specific source to understand historical US foreign policy.
The significance of this decision is difficult to overstate. Ever since the Presidential Daily Briefing originated in the Kennedy Administration in 1961, the successive administrations—Republican and Democratic—have resisted making any of these documents public despite their historical value. During the 1980s, several PDBs from the 1960s were declassified and even cited in FRUS, but CIA quickly stopped these releases, and the US government claimed that the declassification had been improper. In 2004, the Bush administration stalled on granting PDB access to the 9/11 Commission. The Bush administration released a section of the 6 August 2001 PDB warning about potential threats from al-Qa‘ida only after significant public pressure. Administration officials had previously argued that releasing any of these documents would threaten the ability of presidents to receive unbiased intelligence. They also employed an argument that the PDB should not be released because its release would be unprecedented. This hard line on declassifying PDBs continued in later years. In 2006, the CIA was able to convince Federal District Judge David Levy that releasing two PDBs from the 1960s, requested by Dr. Larry Berman, would compromise intelligence sources and methods. In addition, Levy ruled that the PDBs were protected under the doctrine of presidential communications privilege. Such unyielding efforts to retain secrecy regarding the PDB continued during the Obama administration. In 2009, the CIA claimed that PDB materials used to prosecute Lewis “Scooter” Libby in 2006 were still classified despite being declassified and redacted for use in that trial. The idea of disclosing any PDBs therefore was viewed with harsh opposition by successive administrations.
This is despite the fact that the information many PDBs actually contained was publicly known in many cases. For example, a PDB from May 1967 mentioned that the British government had decided to withdraw from its protectorate in Southern Yemen in January 1968. The same document also mentioned that Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser was reluctant to fight a war against Israel but feared for his prestige in Egypt and other Arab nations if he declined to do so. These facts are common knowledge to students and scholars studying the Middle East, but the US government continuously declined to disclose that President Johnson had been briefed on these matters.
However, in the last few years there was a sign that the US government was rethinking its position on PDB secrecy, if not the question of transparency in general. In 2009 President Obama issued an executive order that included guidelines designed to limit the indefinite classification of information. In 2011 he ordered the release of a PDB paragraph from 1968 describing the Soviet space program. In September of this year, the CIA released PDBs from the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, although it should be noted that approximately twenty percent of the documents’ contents were redacted. Next year, more PDBs from the Nixon and Ford administrations will be released, with all future PDBs being reviewed for redaction and declassification forty years after their issuance to the president.
For critics of government secrecy, it may be tempting to dismiss the decision to release these PDBs as a symbolic gesture, or a retrenchment intended to protect other secrets such as reports on interrogation or targeted killings. However, these documents themselves are highly historically significant and a valuable resource for scholars of the Middle East and US foreign policy toward the region. They give the researcher the opportunity to see what information was presented to Kennedy and Johnson when important regional events took place, and when they made important policy decisions. For example, the aforementioned President’s Daily Brief from 17 May 1967 demonstrated that the US government did not believe that Nasser was serious about war with Israel. Indeed, the CIA’s briefers argued that Nasser was holding military demonstrations in an effort to persuade Israel to “take seriously” the Egyptian-Syrian mutual security pact signed that month. The PDB from 3 August 1967 discusses Syria, saying, “We are hearing rumblings of dissatisfaction from inside Syria and see signs that some new realignment in the leadership may be under way. There is little chance, however, for any basic change in the radical coloration of the government or in its close alignment with Moscow.” The same PDB also noted bombings at the US Wheelus base in Libya conducted by opponents of Libyan King Idris. King Idris was “in no hurry for the evacuation of the US Wheelus base; he would be quite happy if negotiations drag on indefinitely. The King’s pro-Nasir [sic] enemies, however, have seized on the base as a focal point in their dissident campaign. They exploded some bombs against the perimeter wall last week.” The PDB still nonetheless assessed Nasser’s role in these dissident activities as low, but predicted that greater pressure from Nasser (including propaganda) would increase the pressure on King Idris. This shows the thinking of US intelligence officials about the Libyan political situation two years before the coup that brought Qaddafi to power. These are only a few of the observations that the newly declassified PDBs will make available to researchers. These documents contain valuable information for both specialists and non-specialists alike.
Overall, the release of the PDBs significantly contributes to the available knowledge base present for academics who research US foreign policy in the Middle East. Due to perceived security concerns and intelligence rules, these documents contain information that was not previously available. Their release is likely to lead scholars to reexamine existing assumptions about numerous events in the history of US Middle Eastern policy during the 1960s, ranging from the 1961 separatist coup in Syria to the role of US officials in the lead-up to the 1967 war. Most importantly, it sheds light on the decisions, perspectives, biases, and outlooks of the US intelligence officials who were responsible for briefing the president on a daily basis, as well as the presidents whose needs these briefings were tailored to meet.