Advertisement

CIA declassifies trove of top-secret documents

Advertisement

Story highlights

The CIA released 19,000 pages of classified briefings on the major events that shook the Kennedy and Johnson presidencies.

Despite the seriousness of the topics, the intelligence points were written to be highly casual.

Washington CNN —  

In 1961, the CIA debuted a new type of confidential intelligence report for President John F. Kennedy, a daily morning briefing surveying the threats facing the country so top secret that it was kept even from his second-in-command.

The CIA says it was directed that “under no circumstances” should it be delivered to Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, likely due to political rivalries between the two.

The detail is just one of many surrounding the key intelligence briefing the President receives each morning – known first as the President’s Intelligence Checklist, abbreviated as PICL, and then later as the President’s Daily Brief, or PDB – that were shared in the CIA’s declassification Wednesday of an unprecedented number of documents related to the briefing book.

The 19,000 pages of released briefings contain details of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the erection of the Berlin Wall, the Vietnam War and other major events that shook the Kennedy and Johnson presidencies from 1961-1969. Portions of the briefs still remain redacted.

Despite the seriousness of the topics, the intelligence points were written to be highly casual, calling details, for example, “sketchy” and, in one instance, describing a Polish ambassador who defecated on himself after being trapped in a car.

“A mob kept the Polish ambassador in his car for 10 hours, causing him to ruin both his clothing and the upholstery,” the brief states. This language is radically different than the formal briefs President Barack Obama receives today, according to the CIA.

“Today’s PDB in many respects is unrecognizable from what it was in the Kennedy and Johnson years,” said CIA Director John Brennan at the document release event at the Lyndon B. Johnson library in Austin, Texas. “Back then, the articles were full of colorful language and personal asides that would never make it past a PDB editor today.”

Still, the documents offer insight into a time of high alert for the U.S, including when the nation was at the brink of war with the Soviet Union.

President Lyndon B. Johnson reads the Presidential Daily Brief.
Central Intelligence Agency
President Lyndon B. Johnson reads the Presidential Daily Brief.

The hysteria surrounding Soviet missiles deployed to Cuba, known as the Cuban Missile Crisis, played out like a counting exercise in the pages of the daily intelligence reports Kennedy received.

“(M)ore SAM (surface to air missile) sites along the north coast,” reads the brief from Oct. 9, 1962. “They will close one of the few remaining gaps in missile coverage of the island.” Two days later, the briefing refers to “two more surface-to-air missile sites, making a total of twenty. At least some, possibly many of these sites could now be operational, but we are not sure of this yet.” Then an additional missile site was discovered more than a week later. Oct. 23, 1962: “We can now account for 33 missiles and 23 launchers.”

One note from that initial brief detailed “Soviet ICBM shot aborts” and informed Kennedy that an intercontinental ballistic missile test “either failed immediately after launch or was canceled at the last minute.”

Just a couple of months later, the PICL documented the initial steps taken by communist East Berlin to build the Berlin Wall that would separate it from West Berlin. On Aug. 17, 1961, a section of the report titled “The Situation in Berlin” details “floodlights” being installed, along with “mazes of concrete stanchions and permanent fences.”

The President’s Daily Brief was born under the Kennedy administration in June of 1961, when President Kennedy saw the need for a single intelligence product after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba earlier that year. The administration was concerned important information was being missed due to the many different and dense intelligence reports available at the time.

In a 1998 internal CIA interview with the document’s creator, Richard Lehman, Lehman said he was asked by the Kennedy administration to create “something that will have everything in it that is worth the President’s attention,” with the specification that it “fit it into a breast pocket so that the President could carry it around with him and read it at his convenience.”

Created in just a few days, the document had initially been called the President’s Intelligence Checklist, abbreviated as PICL and dubbed the “pickle.” The first PICL was delivered to Kennedy at his weekend retreat near the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia on June 17, 1961.

Kennedy sat down to read it next to the swimming pool, perched on the diving board, according to Brennan, who recounted the story of that first delivery. The document contained 14 short intelligence briefs, no more than a few sentences in length, that were complimented by notes and maps. One note from the initial brief detailed “Soviet ICBM shot aborts” and informed Kennedy that an intercontinental ballistic missile test “either failed immediately after launch or was canceled at the last minute.”

Brennan, who was a presidential briefer in the 1990s, said Kennedy sent word that he was pleased with the contents.

“The aide contacted the officers at the CIA who had written it and said, ‘so far so good,’” according to Brennan.

A few months later, the PICL updated the president on the state of Berlin, Germany, documenting the initial steps taken by communist East Berlin to build the Berlin Wall. On Aug. 17, 1961, a brief details “floodlights” being installed, along with “mazes of concrete stanchions and permanent fences.”

Kennedy only received the briefs for two years before being assassinated on Nov. 22, 1963. On that day, the PICL was dedicated to Kennedy. “For this day, the Checklist Staff can find no words more fitting than a verse quoted by the President to a group of newspapermen the day he learned of the presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba,” the page reads. “Bullfight critics ranked in rows Crowd the enormous plaza full; But only one is there who knows And he’s the man who fights the bull.”

Johnson was updated with information on Kennedy’s killer, Lee Harvey Oswald, three days after Kennedy’s assassination. The PICL confirms press reports that Oswald traveled to Mexico City, where he visited both the Cuban and Soviet embassies on Sept. 28, 1963. “He was trying, we are told, to arrange for visas so that he could travel to the USSR via Havana. He returned to the US on 3 October.”

The PICL was replaced by the President’s Daily Brief in 1964, a year after Kennedy was assassinated and Johnson’s term began.