Who’s Afraid of the PDB?

Why Bush should show the 9/11 commission his briefs.

LBJ: His briefs are showing

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.

When it suits its purpose, the Bush administration will sometimes admit the PDBs aren’t as supersensitive as they’re cracked up to be. In a May 2002 press briefing, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice was quizzed about a PDB, dated Aug. 6, 2001, that discussed Osama Bin Laden’s terrorist designs on the United States. In answering, Rice emphasized that this PDB was “very vague,” “very non-specific,” and “mostly historical” and that there was “nothing really new here.” That missed the point. The reporters—and the public—didn’t want to know what the Aug. 6 PDB revealed in the way of closely held national secrets. They wanted to know what it revealed about the Bush White House’s response to warnings about al-Qaida’s intentions—intentions that ceased being a secret on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. The bipartisan Congressional investigation of Sept. 11 cut to the heart of the problem. Its staff director, Eleanor Hill, reported to Congress that “According to [CIA Director George Tenet], the President’s knowledge of intelligence information relevant to this Inquiry remains classified even when the substance of that intelligence information has been declassified.” Translation: Even if the information is public, whether the president knew it is none of your damn business.

Obviously there is some information that the executive branch has a legitimate interest in withholding from the public: the specifications of a weapon system, the identity of a spy who would be shot, the bottom line of a negotiation in progress, etc. But these real secrets make up only a fraction of what is classified today, and they rarely adorn the PDB. During the Cold War, for example, the code word GAMMA GUPY referred to the National Security Agency’s ability to listen in on the radio-telephone conversations of Soviet leaders while they drove around Moscow in their limos. A document that specifically described that capacity would be far more sensitive than a PDB summary item that said Soviet leaders were discussing the failed wheat harvest and planning to fire the Ukraine party secretary.

President Bush and Vice President Cheney have both argued that if the CIA had to worry about its PDBs being made public, it would feel less free to tell it straight to the commander in chief. “They’ll spend more time worried about how the report’s going to look on the front page of the Washington Post or on Fox News,” Cheney said in 2002. But the record shows that the people who trim intelligence to fit official spin are the policy-makers, not the CIA—as when Vice President Cheney claimed in the run-up to the Iraq war that Saddam Hussein had “reconstituted” his nuclear weapons. If more of the actual CIA analysis became public, policy might well improve. In the case of Iraq, the public would have seen the numerous dissents and caveats in the underlying classified estimate. These were largely stripped out of the publicized version and completely missing from the vice president’s speeches.

The passage of time lowered the veil of secrecy surrounding the PDBs when the National Archives began to release them under the normal historical declassification program in 1985, 1989, and 1993. Unfortunately, the process was interrupted by the CIA, acting on the ludicrously self-serving final recommendation of its 1991 Task Force on Openness, which was to “preserve the mystique.” (This is why, at the top of the June 5, 1967, PDB published by the State Department, there’s a notation that reads: “This information … was improperly declassified and released.“)The CIA’s hard line on the PDBs is one of the many decisions in the 1990s that turned the agency’s openness program into a “public relations snow job,” according to the distinguished historian George Herring. Herring served on the CIA historical advisory panel for six years until his advocacy for greater openness, including release of the PDBs, led the CIA to replace him with more compliant scholars.

The Bush fils PDBs—even from August 2001—could easily be declassified by blacking out the sources and methods that are truly sensitive, as was done with the Johnson and Nixon briefings. Doing so, however, would sacrifice “the mystique” by showing that most of the time, presidents really do not have much more or better substantive information about national security than the rest of us. And when they think they do, they’re often wrong, as Lyndon Johnson was about Vietnam, or the first-term Ronald Reagan was about the Soviet military, or George W. Bush was about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Releasing the PDBs would tell us what Dubya knew and when he knew it. That’s the real reason you won’t see them anytime soon.