CIA Releases Declassified Secret President's Daily Brief

Sep 17, 2015
Originally published on September 18, 2015 2:50 pm
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now let's glimpse the world as it looks to the president. Most people will never really know that perspective. Even among the 11 Republican candidates in last night's debate, only one, at most, will get that view anytime soon. There is, however, a chance to see what presidents were reading because the CIA has released 2,500 issues of the President's Daily Brief, or the PDB, intelligence reports for Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. NPR's John Burnett reports.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: President John Kennedy read the first Daily Brief in June, 1961, at his retreat in Virginia Hunt Country. He was sitting on the diving board of a swimming pool, reading the spiral-bound square pages about goings on in Laos, Cuba and the Kremlin. He liked their conciseness. And since then, they've been a daily feature of the presidency. President Lyndon Johnson read his first Daily Brief the day after the assassination in Dallas. JFK had excluded the vice president from the inner circle of national security, something no president would ever repeat.

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JOHN HELGERSON: The first lesson was, take the vice president seriously.

BURNETT: That was John Helgerson, former deputy director of intelligence at the CIA. He and a host of intelligence luminaries gathered at the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin yesterday to mark the historic document drop.

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JOHN BRENNAN: The PDB is among the most highly classified and sensitive documents in all of our government.

BURNETT: Current CIA director John Brennan was also there.

BRENNAN: The release of these documents affirms that the world's greatest democracy does not keep secrets merely for secrecy's sake.

BURNETT: Past presidents and CIA directors had fought for years to keep PDBs classified. A former federal official who remains plugged into the intelligence community and who asked not to be named says Wednesday's historic document release was prompted by a desire by both President Obama and the CIA to regain public trust in spy-craft after the damage caused by the Edward Snowden leaks. At the Austin gathering, the CIA chief read a letter from the president praising the agency's, quote, "extraordinary service and indispensable contributions to global security and peace."

The daily digests from 1961 to 1969 covered the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Six-day Arab-Israeli War and leftist movements in Latin America. Here's a phone recording of LBJ talking to his CIA director, William Raborn, in '68.

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LYNDON B. JOHNSON: For instance, if there's anything that we ought to be doing in Bolivia, I'd like to know it.

WILLIAM RABORN: Sure.

JOHNSON: If there's anything further on Guatemala, I want to know it. If there's any real dangerous impact in Colombia, I want somebody to say, our evaluators think, Mr. President, this is something you ought to see.

RABORN: Yes, Sir.

BURNETT: The Daily Briefs are expected to be a treasure trove for historians. They're not just CIA intelligence briefings or State Department cables. They're documents that represent what the president actually knew and when he knew it. William Inboden is a former member of the White House National Security Council, a historian and currently director of the Clements Center at the University of Texas at Austin.

WILLIAM INBODEN: Reading them is like reading a mirror image of what the president was thinking. So with that, I think that helps us appreciate a little more just how rich and singular these documents are.

BURNETT: While most presidents get their daily CIA briefing first thing in the morning, President Johnson liked his in the afternoon, oftentimes when he was in bed, in his pajamas. This is where he learned about the latest troubles in the Dominican Republic, the Congo and North and South Vietnam. And, as John Brennan explained, the PDBs didn't always concern dangerous foreign conflicts.

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BRENNAN: In today's collection, you will find offbeat items like Russian reaction to a performance by the New York City Ballet and commentary on a decision by the New York Yankees to fire Yogi Berra.

BURNETT: To this day, the President's Daily Brief remains one of the most important functions for this multi-tentacled agency, one of several in Washington that's charged with spying on the rest of the world. Porter Goss, former CIA director under George W. Bush, says this is what kept him up at night.

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PORTER GOSS: I have never had a harder job in my life than trying to figure out what was worth the president of the United States' time that we had.

BURNETT: The 2,500 President's Daily Briefs went live on the CIA website yesterday. An agency official says about 20 percent of the documents are redacted to protect methods and sources. The agency plans to release 2,000 more PDBs next year, from the presidencies of Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. John Burnett, NPR News, Austin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.