UQ Wire: The President's Daily Brief
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Unanswered Questions : Thinking for ourselves.
The President's Daily Brief
By Thomas S. Blanton
Updated April 12, 2004
See fully HTML marked up version: http://www.gwu.edu/%7Ensarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB116/index.htm
Documents: The 6 August 2001 PDB and more
Washington, D.C., 12 April 2004 - President Bush on Saturday, 10 April 2004, became the first sitting president ever to release publicly even a portion of his Daily Brief from the CIA. The page-and-a-half section of the President's Daily Brief from 6 August 2001, headlined "Bin Ladin Determined To Strike in US," had generated the most contentious questioning in last week's testimony by national security adviser Condoleezza Rice before the commission investigating the September 11th attacks. Dr. Rice continued to insist that the Brief did not amount to a real warning, while several commissioners seemed to think otherwise.
These contrasting interpretations dominated the weekend's news. For example, President Bush commented on Sunday that the "PDB said nothing about an attack on America. It talked about intentions, about somebody who hated America - well, we knew that. … The question was, who was going to attack us, when and where, and with what." (Note A1) Meanwhile, the Sunday news analysis in The New York Times began with the following summary: "In a single 17-sentence document, the intelligence briefing delivered to President Bush in August 2001 spells out the who, hints at the what and points towards the where of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington that followed 36 days later." (Note A2)
The American people can decide for themselves about the warning quotient, now that the text of the Brief is public. Even with the text, we don't really know what the President knew and when he knew it. According to the CIA and the 9/11 commission, there were 40 other mentions of Al Qaeda or Bin Laden in the President's Daily Briefs before 9/11. Most of those presumably came during what Dr. Rice called "the threat spike" of June and July 2001. The August 6 Brief came on the downside of that spike, so the other PDB reports may be more (or less) alarming. Until these are released - and Saturday's release shows it can be done with minor deletions to protect sources - neither the American public nor the 9/11 commission can move on to the next question: "What did the President do and when did he do it?" Or, perhaps most important, how do we fix our vulnerabilities, rather than just hide them?
But the release of the Brief raises a number of questions not addressed so far in the press coverage. One is the contrast between the now-released text and what various White House officials said about it over the past two years. A second revolves around renewed claims by the White House and the CIA that this release sets no precedent for release of similar or future information. A third points to the larger question of whether the sustained secrecy around this Brief really made our country more secure, or less so. For the moment, this updated posting includes the following:
- The declassified page-and-a-half section of the 6 August 2001 President's Daily Brief headlined "Bin Ladin Determined To Strike in US".
- The White House Fact Sheet titled "The August 6, 2001 PDB" released at the same time as the PDB section, in question-and-answer format.
- The White House briefing of 10 April 2004 on the release of the PDB, courtesy of the invaluable web site of the Federation of American Scientists, edited by Steven Aftergood. In the kind of stylized exchange that typifies Washington, the two briefers were identified only as "senior administration officials." Actually, they were Jim Wilkinson, the National Security Council spokesperson, and John Bellinger, the National Security Council general counsel. Interestingly, when Mr. Wilkinson agreed to check on what President Bush said when he received the PDB (p. 4), Mr. Bellinger interrupted to say "we will not take that question, because that's not the sort of thing that we would discuss, is the interaction between the President and his briefer." Earlier in this very briefing, however, Mr. Wilkinson had spent two paragraphs discussing the PDB interaction, giving President Bush the credit for having asked the questions that prompted the preparation of this particular PDB.
- The original White House briefing on 16 May 2002 by then-spokesman Ari Fleischer, about the PDB. CBS Evening News had broken the story on the evening of 15 May 2002 that President Bush had received a briefing only weeks before September 11th mentioning the possibility of hijacking by Bin Laden. The White House responded both in Mr. Fleischer's morning briefing, and in a special briefing by national security adviser Condoleeza Rice later on 16 May. Mr. Fleischer left the impression in this briefing that the PDB came about because the President had "asked for a compilation" of the "spike-up of information early on in the summer."
- The White House briefing on 16 May 2002 by Dr. Rice. Dr. Rice did not mention that the title of the PDB section was "Bin Ladin Determined To Strike in US," and described the PDB as "very non-specific," "nothing really new here," "an analytic piece about methods that they had available to them," "an analytic piece that tried to bring together several threads - in 1997, they talked about this; in 1998- they talked about that; it's been known that maybe they want to try and release the blind Sheikh…"
- The White House briefing on 17 May 2002 by Mr. Fleischer, in which he said, "The President was aware that bin Laden, of course, as previous administrations it's been well-known that bin Laden was determined to strike the United States. In fact, the label on the President's -- the PDB was, 'bin Laden determined to strike the United States.'" Within two days, the missing preposition from the title ("Strike in US") was supplied on the front page of the Washington Post. (Note A3)
- The White House briefing on 21 May 2002 by Mr. Fleischer. The third question was whether the White House would share the PDB with the Congress (it did not), in answer to which Mr. Fleischer described the PDB as "the most highly sensitized classified document in the government."
Posted April 8, 2004
Washington, D.C., April 8 - The most contentious moments of today's nationally televised hearing of the commission investigating the September 11th terrorist attacks focused on the controversial secret intelligence briefing received by President Bush on August 6, 2001 - a top-level document called the President's Daily Brief. Commission members Bob Kerrey, Richard Ben-Veniste and Timothy Roemer each asked national security adviser Condoleezza Rice to declassify the document, and each time she ducked the direct question, telling Mr. Roemer that "I think you know the sensitivity of presidential decision memoranda."
The White House resisted the commission for months on the question of their access to the Briefs, (Note 1) but after public pressure from the commission and victims' families, relented somewhat. Prior to today's hearing, three commission members and its staff director got to see the originals of President's Daily Briefs from the Bush and Clinton years relating to terrorism. They then wrote up a summary for their peers. (Note 2) But the direct quotes from the August 6, 2001 President's Daily Brief read into the record today, both by commission members and by Dr. Rice, point to an underlying reality - that the Brief could be declassified and released publicly simply by blacking out the sources-and-methods information. [See my article in Slate magazine, posted 22 March 2004, "Who's Afraid of the PDB?"]
Perhaps the White House will take this simple step, just as it reversed its previous absolute refusal to allow Dr. Rice to testify in public. Standing in the way of this common sense approach, however, are myths and misinformation about the President's Daily Brief - put forward by the White House, CIA, and even the 9-11 commission's own chairman - that, in Mark Twain's phrase, have gone twice around the world while the truth was putting on its shoes.
For example, each of the following italicized statements is a myth, and below the myth in plain type is the reason why.
The chair of the 9/11 commission, former New Jersey governor Thomas Kean, said that "[t]hese are documents that only two or three people would normally have access to. To make those available to an outside group is something that no other president has done in our history." (Note 3)
Actually, ten President's Daily Briefs are in the public domain, officially declassified by the U.S. government. (Note 4) The CIA established the PDB under that name in 1964, and PDBs from the Johnson administration began to be declassified in 1985, during the tenure of President Reagan. The ten 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 since they refer to the sources of 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.
At the top of the 5 June 1967 PDB published by the State Department one can read the official line that these historical PDBs were "improperly declassified and released. The declassification and release of this information in no way impacts or controls the declassification status of the remainder of this PDB, other PDBs, or the PDB as a series." (Note 5)
This statement is not true, and it violates the law that says the Foreign Relations series has to be accurate and comprehensive. The actual texts of the released PDBs reveal that there was nothing improper about their declassification. There is nothing damaging to U.S. national security in these documents. The secret behind the State Department's straddle - publishing a PDB while disclaiming its own action - is that the CIA is really to blame. The PDBs began to be released under the normal historical declassification program (in 1985, 1989 and 1993) until the CIA noticed and decided to invoke the final recommendation of its notorious 1991 Task Force on Openness. The task force report (classified secret at first, until embarrassment and the Freedom of Information Act forced its release) enumerated a number of goals from greater openness, including building support for the CIA budget, of course, but the final goal on the list - one that any declassifier had to keep in mind - was to "preserve the mystique." The CIA's hard line on the PDBs is one of the many decisions in the 1990s that turned CIA's openness program into a "public relations snow job," according to the distinguished historian George Herring, who served on the CIA historical advisory panel for six years until his advocacy for greater openness, including for release of the PDBs, led the CIA to replace him with more compliant scholars. (Note 6)
The then-White House spokesman Ari Fleischer called the PDB "the most highly sensitized classified document in the government." (Note 7)
Here is the mystique at work. Actually, there are thousands, and perhaps even millions, of codeworded documents and compartments more highly classified than the PDB itself. These include the very items blacked out in the declassified Briefs from the Johnson years - most likely describing the specific sources of the information. Mr. Fleischer himself, only four days before this remark, had read out the headline from a particularly interesting section of the August 6, 2001 President's Daily Brief, titled "bin Laden determined to strike the United States." Interestingly, today's 9-11 commission hearing featured two misstatements about this headline. Mr. Ben-Veniste said that until today, the headline was classified (Mr. Fleischer had actually read it out in May 2002); and Dr. Rice gave the headline as including the words "inside the U.S."
A Washington Post editorial asked," If a president's intelligence briefing is not a legitimate secret, after all, what is?" (Note 8)
Well, legitimate secrets include information like the specifications of a weapon system, the identity of a spy who'd be shot, or the bottom line of a negotiation in progress, but these real secrets make up only a fraction of what is classified today, and rarely adorn the PDB. During the Cold War, for example, the codeword GAMMA GUPY referred to the National Security Agency ability to listen in on the radio-telephone conversations of Soviet leaders while they were driving around Moscow in their limos. (Note 9) A document that specifically described that capacity would be far more sensitive than a President's Daily Brief item that said Soviet leaders were bemoaning the grain harvest failure and thinking about firing the Ukraine party secretary.
Vice President Cheney described the President's Daily Briefs as "the family jewels." (Note 10)
This was an unintentionally ironic turn of phrase, since the original use of the words "family jewels" in the CIA context referred to the internal compilation of agency "horrors" put together in the early 1970s after press reports of CIA assassination plots, and use of psychotropic drugs on unsuspecting victims. The PDB is about as far away from these operational matters as you can get. It provides a tour d'horizon of world events, based on the CIA's best information, spiced up with intercepted communications and spy photos. According to the CIA's own history of its presidential briefings, roughly 40 per cent of what the PDB covers is addressed in the newspapers. (Note 11) According to Walter Pincus of the Washington Post, President Clinton complained that "most days the PDB contained material he had already read elsewhere." (Note 12) President Reagan's first national security adviser, Richard Allen, wrote that the PDB "is, at best, a form of staccato information, a news digest for the very privileged. But it is rarely predictive. In fact, some would consider it pedestrian, even anodyne." (Note 13)
The former CIA general counsel, Elizabeth Rindskopf Parker, who admitted she was not on the distribution list, called the PDB "sacrosanct," saying, "It's something you never, ever share… It really is advising your client, the president, in the most intimate way." (Note 14)
The President is not the CIA's "client." Even the intelligence community uses the term "customer" not "client," because the CIA is precluded from making policy recommendations to the President. The first answer on the CIA website to "frequently asked questions" says the CIA is an information provider, not a policy maker. (Note 15) The PDB is an information brief, the CIA's equivalent of Headline News, not deliberative or pre-decisional or legal advice. Many presidential briefings at least as sensitive and far more deliberative than the PDBs have reached the public domain without damage to national security or to future presidents' ability to get candid advice, ranging from declassified copies of Henry Kissinger's morning briefing for President Nixon, to verbatim quotes from briefings by CIA director William Webster and national security adviser Brent Scowcroft to President George H.W. Bush that appear in the joint Bush-Scowcroft memoir, A World Transformed. (Note 16)
Vice President Cheney said any public release of the PDBs would make its CIA authors "spend more time worried about how the report's going to look on the front page of the Washington Post or on Fox News than they will making their best judgment and taking risk and giving us the best advice they can…." (Note 17)
The idea that CIA analysts are trimmers, not straight-shooters, insults the CIA's professionals and turns history on its head. CIA analysts have a long and distinguished track record of bringing bad news to the White House, from pessimistic estimates on the Vietnam war to predicting the 1991 coup against Gorbachev to discounting the Niger yellowcake allegation of 2002. The record shows that the people who trim intelligence to fit official spin are the policymakers, 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 - dissents and caveats largely stripped out of the publicized version, and completely missing from the Vice President's speeches.
In the same vein as the Vice President, but less colorfully, President Bush said he opposed release of the PDBs because "[i]t's important for the writers of the presidential daily brief to feel comfortable that the documents will never be politicized and/or unnecessarily exposed for public purview. I - and so, therefore, the kind of the first statements out of this administration were very protective of the presidential prerogatives of the past and to protect the right for other presidents, future presidents, to have a good presidential daily brief." (Note 18)
There's an equally plausible case to be made that the President is protecting himself, not the CIA analysts or future presidents, from scrutiny. The analysts, after all, provided President Bush with the August 6, 2001 PDB including the warning that Bin Laden planned to attack the U.S., and mentioned hijacked airplanes as one possibility (apparently not as suicide missiles, but the more traditional skyjack style). What did the President do with that warning? Did anything happen? None of his senior aides were present at the August 6 briefing, which took place at the ranch in Crawford, Texas. From a distance, it looks as if the warning came but they all were on vacation.
National security adviser Condoleezza Rice described the August 6, 2001 Brief as "very vague," "very non-specific," "mostly historical," and "nothing really new here." (Note 19)
But what about that nasty headline declassified by Ari Fleischer - "bin Laden determined to strike in U.S."? Dr. Rice can't have it both ways, that the PDB is a "very vague" document that still cannot be publicly released. The bipartisan Congressional investigation of September 11th cut to the heart of the problem. Its staff director, Eleanor Hill, reported to Congress that "According to the DCI [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." (Note 20) This is the ultimate coverup line. In other words, even if the information is public, whether the President knew it is a fact that if released would damage national security? In fact, keeping phony secrets like this does the real damage to our security, as a declassified National Reconnaissance Office study remarked: "[C]ontinued insistence on tight security for 'open' secrets reduces overall credibility and erodes the integrity of security around the technology and the operations which still need to be protected." (Note 21)
Defending the 9/11 commission's arrangement with the White House for limited access and summaries of the PDBs, commission director Philip Zelikow said, "Neither we nor the White House are aware of any precedent for this in the history of the republic." (Note 22)
The declassified PDBs suggest
a more appropriate precedent, in fact, the same precedent
that Professor Zelikow recommended during the April 2000
meeting of the State Department's historical advisory
committee, referring to the historical PDBs that CIA was
refusing to release: "[I]t should be possible to redact the
PDB to make it releasable... the CIA's interests could be
protected with redactions… the CIA's decision to withhold
the entire PDB series from release [i]s pernicious." (Note 23) Indeed.
The PDBs - even from August 2001 - could easily be declassified by blacking out the sources and methods that are truly sensitive. This fact leads to a frightening but also empowering thought: Most of the time, Presidents really do not have much more or better substantive information than the rest of us about national security, and when they think they do, they're often wrong, as LBJ 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.
But releasing the President's Daily Briefs would hold the CIA accountable for its banalities as well as its triumphs and failures. Likewise, releasing the Briefs would tell us what the President knew and when he knew it. So don't hold your breath.
A1. Joseph Curl, "Bush defends memo stance - 'No indication' of 9/11 attacks," The Washington Times, 12 April 2004, front page.
A2. Douglas Jehl, "A Warning, but Clear? White House Tries to Make the Point That New Details Add Up to Old News," The New York Times, 11 April 2004, p. A13.
A3. Bob Woodward and Dan Eggen, "Aug. Memo Focused On Attacks in U.S.", The Washington Post, 19 May 2002, p. A1. Mr. Woodward's book, Bush At War (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002, 376 pp.) had quoted from two other PDB's but did not mention the 6 August 2001 PDB.
1. See Philip Shenon, "9/11 Panel Threatens to Issue Subpoena for Bush's Briefings," The New York Times, 10 February 2004, p. A16.
2. Dan Eggen, "9/11 Panel to Have Rare Glimpse of Presidential Briefings," The Washington Post, 16 November 2003, p. A9.
3. Philip Shenon, "9/11 Commission Could Subpoena Oval Office Files," The New York Times, 26 October 2003, front page.
4. I am indebted to Dr. William Burr, director of the Nuclear Documentation Project of the National Security Archive, for locating the ten declassified PDBs, for providing the analogous material from the Nixon White House, and for astute commentary on the overall issue of the PDBs.
5. Posted on the State Department web site at www.state.gov/r/pa/ho/frus/johnsonlb/xix/28058.htm
6. George C. Herring, "My Years with the CIA," Speech at a January 1997 meeting of the American Historical Association, available on the web at http://www.fas.org/sgp/eprint/herring.html. The CIA advisory panel no longer even makes public its recommendations, thus giving up the only leverage it could possibly bring to bear against CIA secrecy. See http://www.fas.org/sgp/advisory/ciahrp9.html
Fleischer, White House Press Briefing, 21 May 2002., at
, and 17 May 2002, at
8. To the credit of the Post, after posing this question, the editorial went on to say, "If Mr. Bush did not mean to share the country's most sensitive secrets with the commissioners, he should not have signed the bill in the first place." Editorial, "Turn It Over," The Washington Post, 31 October 2003, p. A24.
9. Jeffrey T. Richelson, The U.S. Intelligence Community, 4th Edition (Boulder, CO.: Westview Press, 1999,), p. 428.
10. Vice President Richard
Cheney, interview on Fox News, 19 May 2002.
11. John L. Helgerson, Getting to Know the President: CIA Briefings of Presidential Candidates, 1952-1992 (Washington, D.C.: CIA Center for the Study of Intelligence, 1996, 165 pp.), p. 163.
12. Walter Pincus, "Under Bush, the Briefing Gets Briefer," The Washington Post, 24 May 2002, p. A33.
13. Richard V. Allen, "An Intelligent Think to Do," The New York Times, 14 November 2003, p. A29.
14. Quoted in Dan Eggen, "9/11 Panel to Have Rare Glimpse of Presidential Briefings," The Washington Post, 16 November 2003, p. A9.
15. See www.cia.gov/cia/public_affairs/faq.html
16. For direct quotes from CIA director William Webster's 2 August 1990 briefing on Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, see p. 315.; and for a direct quote from national security adviser Brent Scowcroft's 7 March 1991 briefing memo on the Soviet Union, see p. 499, both in George Bush and Brent Scowcroft, A World Transformed (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998, 590 pp.).
17. Cheney interview, Fox News, 19 May 2002.
18. President George W. Bush, Press conference, Rose Garden, 28 October 2003.
19. Dr. Condoleezza Rice, Press briefing, White House, 16 May 2002. See also Rice quote in Pincus, "Under Bush, the Briefing Gets Briefer," The Washington Post, 24 May 2002, p. A33, describing the 6 August 2001 PDB as saying, "Here's what we know historically about al Qaeda's determination to attack the United States."
20. Eleanor Hill, Joint Inquiry Staff Statement, Part 1, 18 September 2002, on the web at http://www.fas.org/irp/congress/2002_hr/091802hill.html
21. National Reconnaissance Office, Report on the Review of Security Requirements of the National Reconnaissance Program, 24 June 1974, TOP SECRET [DELETED] TALENT-KEYHOLE, p. 9. Declassified pursuant to a Freedom of Information Act request by Dr. Jeffrey T. Richelson.
22. Quoted in Dan Eggen, "9/11 Panel to Have Rare Glimpse of Presidential Briefings," The Washington Post, 16 November 2003, p. A9.
23. The minutes of the State Department historical advisory committee meeting are available on the invaluable web site of the Secrecy and Government Project of the Federation of American Scientists, at http://www.fas.org/sgp/advisory/state/hac0400.html
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