Re­lease of brief­ings re­veals pres­i­dents’ in­tel pref­er­ences From JFK’s Check­list to Obama’s iPad

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - BY GUY TAY­LOR

The CIA’s re­lease of more than 19,000 pages of de­clas­si­fied ma­te­rial has pro­vided a win­dow into one of Washington’s most se­cre­tive doc­u­ments, the Pres­i­dent’s Daily Brief, or PDB, which in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials say has evolved since its cre­ation in the early 1960s.

“It has grown in length and so­phis­ti­ca­tion, adding fea­tures like graph­ics and im­agery. It is more com­pre­hen­sive now, and the anal­y­sis is far more rig­or­ous,” CIA Di­rec­tor John O. Bren­nan said as he and other in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity lead­ers de­clas­si­fied large por­tions of some 2,500 PDBs from 1961 through 1969.

The mass re­lease was un­prece­dented be­cause the closely guarded doc­u­ments — pro­duced daily for ev­ery pres­i­dent since John F. Kennedy — have been made public on only the rarest of oc­ca­sions.

The high­est-pro­file ex­am­ple is from 2004, when Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush yielded to pres­sure from crit­ics and de­clas­si­fied part of a PDB that in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials had given him just weeks be­fore 9/11, high­light­ing Osama bin Laden’s de­sire to “con­duct ter­ror­ist at­tacks in the U.S.”

Po­lit­i­cal fall­out from the thou­sands of PDBs re­leased last week won’t be nearly as in­tense be­cause the doc­u­ments are a half-cen­tury old and largely rooted in an era in which U.S. in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials were con­sumed not by global ji­hadi ter­ror­ism but by the Viet­nam War and the Soviet Union’s aim to spread com­mu­nism.

But the doc­u­ments are likely to re­sult in wider public un­der­stand­ing of how the in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity’s in­ter­ac­tion with the White House works — as well as how the daily drum­beat of se­cret assess­ments has evolved over the years, right up to Pres­i­dent Obama, the first U.S. leader to have re­quested that it be pro­vided in a dig­i­tal for­mat.

“An im­por­tant take­away from this re­lease is the fact that the PDB and the CIA and in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity sup­port to pres­i­dents is highly cus­tom­ized,” said Stephen Slick, di­rec­tor of the Univer­sity of Texas at Austin’s In­tel­li­gence Stud­ies Pro­ject.

“Each pres­i­dent is dif­fer­ent in terms of the in­tel­li­gence sup­port that he de­mands and ex­pects, but equally im­por­tant, pres­i­dents, par­tic­u­larly those who serve two terms, have chang­ing needs,” said Mr. Slick, who had a 28-year ca­reer in the CIA’s clan­des­tine ser­vice be­fore serv­ing on Mr. Bush’s Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil.

“There are cer­tain base­line un­der­stand­ings and facts and for­eign sit­u­a­tions that [pres­i­dents] need to be brought up to speed on when they first take of­fice — par­tic­u­larly folks that haven’t had ex­ten­sive ex­pe­ri­ence in in­ter­na­tional af­fairs,” said Mr. Slick. “Over time, as they master their brief, they learn their for­eign coun­ter­parts, they’ve worked around these is­sues, their needs vary and so the in­tel­li­gence sup­port varies.”

Mr. Bren­nan told an au­di­ence last week at the LBJ Pres­i­den­tial Li­brary in Austin, Texas, that the daily assess­ments have “gone from a doc­u­ment writ­ten by just a hand­ful of peo­ple at CIA to one pro­duced by of­fi­cers rep­re­sent­ing an ar­ray of or­ga­ni­za­tions, spe­cial­ties and dis­ci­plines.”

He said that “many of the changes have been driven by tech­nol­ogy and by the pos­si­bil­i­ties af­forded by our ex­pand­ing ca­pa­bil­i­ties and a more in­te­grated in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity.”

Such ex­pand­ing ca­pa­bil­i­ties may mean the in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity’s abil­ity to de­velop hu­man sources in a wider range of na­tions is more ro­bust to­day. But it more likely speaks to the pro­lif­er­a­tion of ever-ad­vanc­ing satel­lite spy­ing tech­nol­ogy, so­phis­ti­cated cam­er­amounted drones and mass-sur­veil­lance ca­pa­bil­i­ties spawned by the world­wide spread of mo­bile phones.

Repack­aged and per­son­al­ized

De­liv­ery of the PDB in the Obama era ap­pears to re­flect this fu­tur­is­tic land­scape of in­tel­li­gence sources. The pres­i­dent is given his brief on an iPad, and it is be­lieved to in­clude videos and cer­tain hyper­linked items that can be tapped to open pages of ex­panded anal­y­sis — although not con­nected to any out­side In­ter­net source lest the doc­u­ment be vul­ner­a­ble to pen­e­tra­tion by for­eign cy­ber­spies.

Tech­no­log­i­cal change aside, Mr. Bren­nan stressed that above all, the PDB has changed over the decades in “re­sponse to the pref­er­ences and habits of each pres­i­dent.”

From the start, this has meant tweaks to the doc­u­ment’s style. The very first briefs were Pres­i­dent’s In­tel­li­gence Check­list doc­u­ments that Kennedy re­quested daily from the CIA. That was a pre­cur­sor of the PDB that the agency be­gan pro­duc­ing for Pres­i­dent John­son in 1964, af­ter of­fi­cials as­cer­tained that he just didn’t con­sume in­for­ma­tion in the same fash­ion as his pre­de­ces­sor.

“Part of the prob­lem was that, early on at least, he pre­ferred to get his in­tel­li­gence in­for­mally, in meet­ings and through con­ver­sa­tion, in­stead of from writ­ten prod­ucts,” said Mr. Bren­nan. “John­son may have also har­bored a built-in bias against the Check­list, since it had been de­lib­er­ately with­held from him when he was [Kennedy’s] vice pres­i­dent.

“So the ed­i­tors of the Check­list de­cided to change course. They gave the doc­u­ment a new name, the Pres­i­dent’s Daily Brief. They repack­aged it, adding longer ar­ti­cles that supplied greater de­tail as well as thoughts on fu­ture trends. And they de­liv­ered it in the af­ter­noon, not the morn­ing, since John­son liked to do his read­ing at the end of the day, of­ten in his pa­ja­mas while ly­ing in bed,” Mr. Bren­nan said.

But the na­ture of the con­tent also evolved — at least in part be­cause of per­sonal in­ter­ests of the pres­i­dent.

The 1960s-era briefs show how the PDBs were pop­u­lated with fairly ba­sic in­for­ma­tion about in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions and a kind of “global pol­i­tics 101” dur­ing the ini­tial months af­ter John­son as­sumed of­fice upon Kennedy’s death, said Wil­liam In­bo­den, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Wil­liam P. Cle­ments Jr. Cen­ter for History, Strat­egy and State­craft at the Univer­sity of Texas-Austin.

Still se­cret af­ter all these years

“Over time, you see John­son’s [grow­ing] in­ter­est in what world lead­ers are think­ing about him in the United States. So, a lit­tle bit of a per­son­al­iza­tion there. Not just what’s public opin­ion writ­large in the Soviet Union, but rather, what does [Soviet leader Nikita] Khrushchev think of me? What does Mao [Ze­dong] think of me?” said Mr. In­bo­den, who also pointed to John­son’s ap­par­ent in­ter­est in be­ing kept up to date on stu­dent protests around the world.

“Then, in the fall of 1967, you see a pro­nounced in­crease in items on the Viet­nam War, and I think … [it] was tele­graphed to the CIA, [that] the pres­i­dent wants a spe­cial sec­tion ev­ery day on Viet­nam,” Mr. In­bo­den said. “Viet­nam goes from be­ing one front-burner is­sue among many to the pre­dom­i­nant front-burner is­sue, and fully half of ev­ery PDB from Septem­ber 1967 on is de­voted just to Viet­nam.”

One can en­vi­sion this per­son­al­iza­tion re­play­ing it­self in dif­fer­ent ways un­der each pres­i­dent dur­ing the years since, although the highly clas­si­fied na­ture of the PDB has made it dif­fi­cult to know the ex­tent to which a pres­i­dent has acted on or ig­nored the in­for­ma­tion pre­sented in the brief.

Mr. Obama, for in­stance, faced crit­i­cism in 2013 for hav­ing run to a re-elec­tion vic­tory with re­peated cam­paign claims that al Qaeda was “dec­i­mated” and “on the run,” de­spite a no­tably more nu­anced as­sess­ment pro­vided to him by the in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity — namely, that ter­ror­ist spinoff groups con­tin­ued to pose threats to na­tional se­cu­rity.

Although some sources told The Washington Times in 2013 that Mr. Obama was re­ceiv­ing brief­ings from the CIA on the threat posed by al Qaeda af­fil­i­ates, oth­ers said it was not specif­i­cally clear how promi­nently the assess­ments fac­tored into the any of the PDBs while he was mak­ing his claims on the cam­paign trail.

The doc­u­ment is so guarded that it may be decades be­fore the public knows.

Even then, there is a chance that such in­for­ma­tion will be kept clas­si­fied. In the case of the briefs re­leased last week, the is­sue of se­crecy weighed heav­ily on the in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity. Some 20 per­cent of the ma­te­rial in the doc­u­ments was redacted — con­sid­ered too sen­si­tive for public dis­sem­i­na­tion a half-cen­tury later.


Pres­i­dent Obama is given his brief on an iPad, and it is be­lieved to in­clude videos and hyper­linked items that can be tapped to open pages of ex­panded anal­y­sis — although not con­nected to any out­side In­ter­net source lest the doc­u­ment be vul­ner­a­ble to pen­e­tra­tion by for­eign cy­ber­spies.

The very first briefs were Pres­i­dent’s In­tel­li­gence Check­list doc­u­ments that Pres­i­dent Kennedy re­quested daily from the CIA.

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