For years the CIA shielded from public view every single one of the briefings that it produces daily for the president’s eyes only, arguing that even letting go one 50-year old briefing could harm national security.
Only in recent years did the CIA revise its traditional stance, releasing in September all of the daily, classified newsletters it had produced for Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. And on Wednesday, the releases continued
, with the posting on the Web of the 28,000 pages prepared for Richard Nixon and his successor, Gerald Ford.
While a considerable amount remains edited out for national security reasons there are some historical gems, which not only hint at how well our intelligence community did in the Cold War but give us decades later a sense of the awesome responsibilities that come with being president.
Whoever occupies the White House in January will receive a similar product, tailored to his or her interests and designed not only to keep the White House informed but to lower the probability that the president will be surprised. And in this era of international terrorism, the cost of surprise is potentially as high as it was in the worst moments of the Cold War.
The President’s Daily Brief, as these daily classified newspapers came to be called — Obama apparently reads his on an iPad — emerged out of Kennedy’s anger at how the CIA had bamboozled him into authorizing an attempt to overthrow Fidel Castro that came to be known as the Bay of Pigs fiasco.
Since June 1961, the CIA has prepared for 10 presidents a special digest of information on subjects it believes the chief executive wants and needs to know about. It includes data collected across all intelligence platforms — from spies to spy satellites to Alan Turingesque code breaking. As far as the intelligence community is concerned it is its Tesla or Breitling.
Kennedy may not have read every one of his reports, but when he did, he often reacted energetically, sending questions back to the CIA for clarification. Indeed one of the last things he did before leaving for Texas in November 1963 was to send a request for more information on something he had read in his daily intelligence briefing.
The two presidencies covered in Wednesday’s release involved leaders who had diametrically opposed views on this source of highly sensitive knowledge. Nixon, it seems, hardly read his. Nixon who did not like to be around people outside his inner circle, insisted that the briefings go to him indirectly
, through Henry Kissinger, his national security adviser.
As a result, the agency was never quite sure what he thought of the product. Whatever presidential feedback there was came from Kissinger to the CIA, not from Nixon himself. (Although I was director of the Nixon Presidential Library when we processed Nixon’s personal copies of the briefings for eventual review and release, I did not look at any of them. The personal copies might have his marginalia, telling us more about how he absorbed or didn’t absorb this material. The CIA released only its copies of the reports prepared for Nixon.)
Ford, on the other hand, had far less self-confidence in foreign affairs and relished these documents as a source of tutoring not only about what mattered in the world but how those issues and areas were developing. Until late 1975, a CIA officer stood by him practically every day as he read the President’s Daily Brief, ready to answer any question Ford might have.
The complex and conspiratorial Nixon brought a prejudice against intelligence, especially the CIA, to the job. He was convinced the Ivy League leadership of the CIA had not only voted for Kennedy but had sabotaged him in the 1960 election. There is evidence that Nixon tended to let the briefings pile up, unread.
But Nixon’s issue with the President’s Daily Brief was not just social insecurity. In his chatty and absorbing memoir, Nixon’s first CIA director, Richard Helms, wrote that his boss “showed little interest in an independent intelligence service” and was “perpetually cranky in his relations with CIA.” Now that we can read most of these briefings, we see a major source of the crankiness. It must have annoyed Nixon that in a number of high-profile areas, the agency was routinely telling him things he certainly did not want to hear.