In a small but momentous shift in national security secrecy policy, President Obama personally ordered the declassification last month of a short paragraph regarding the Soviet space program that appeared in the President’s Daily Brief dated November 26, 1968. The move came in response to a researcher’s request that had been blocked by the Central Intelligence Agency for more than a decade.
The President’s Daily Brief (PDB) is a compilation of intelligence that is presented to the President each day. It has long been considered sacrosanct by intelligence officials and has been effectively beyond the reach of Freedom of Information Act requesters and other researchers.
“The PDB is a unique intelligence product prepared specifically for the President of the United States to provide him with the most important current intelligence on critical issues relating to the national security of the United States,” a CIA official wrote (pdf) in 2006.
“In the PDB, the intelligence community assembles the most sensitive intelligence information and the best analytic judgments in a complete, accurate, and timely package intended to inform the President and his most senior advisors as they make and implement the nation’s defense and foreign policies…. The PDB is the most sensitive intelligence report produced by [the U.S. intelligence community].”
Based on that assessment, intelligence officials have successfully resisted and rebuffed FOIA requests, lawsuits and other public attempts to gain access to PDBs.
In the late 1990s, researcher Peter Pesavento identified several PDBs located at the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library concerning the Soviet space program that were of interest to him and he filed a mandatory declassification review (MDR) request for their release. When his requests were denied by the CIA, he appealed the matter to the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel (ISCAP), an executive branch body that considers appeals of MDR requests that have been denied. Remarkably, in 2003 the ISCAP granted Mr. Pesavento’s appeal with respect to the one paragraph of the five-page PDB that discussed Soviet space (and even so one of the three sentences in the paragraph was partially redacted).
But then-Director of Central Intelligence George J. Tenet vetoed the ISCAP disclosure decision, making use of the new veto authority that had been granted to the DCI in President Bush’s 2003 executive order on classification to block release of the PDB. Two members of the ISCAP appealed to the President to overturn the Tenet veto in 2003, but no action was taken on the appeal, until now.
“Please be advised that the President has directed the declassification and release of portions of the President’s Daily Brief of November 26, 1968, that had been declassified by the Panel in its decision of September 2, 2003,” wrote William A. Cira, executive secretary of the ISCAP in a May 26, 2011 letter (pdf) to Mr. Pesavento.
The declassified PDB paragraph, which will be released by Mr. Pesavento in a forthcoming article, is not very interesting to a non-specialist. It predicts that “the Soviets will not attempt a flight around the moon in December ” but will probably wait until early 1969.
What makes the new disclosure significant is that it represents a decisive break from the intense and unyielding secrecy that with few exceptions has surrounded this class of documents.
In 2004, under pressure from the 9/11 Commission, President Bush released the famous PDB passage entitled “Bin Ladin Determined To Strike in US” (pdf). But even in that case, DCI Tenet declared in his written declassification decision that the 2004 release to the 9/11 Commission “shall not be deemed to constitute any precedent concerning any future declassification or release of any other PDB.”
By contrast, President Obama’s declassification decision in this case does create a precedent that is all but certain to initiate a cascade of further releases of historical PDBs, beginning with several others on Soviet space that were also requested by Mr. Pesavento.
“In the coming months the Panel [ISCAP] will be adjudicating several similar President’s Daily Brief appeals from you that the Panel has held in abeyance pending a decision on this issue,” wrote Mr. Cira of ISCAP last month.
The declassification decision also gives new substance to two provisions in the Obama executive order on national security classification that were in danger of becoming mere rhetorical flourishes.
“[N]o information may be excluded from declassification… based solely on the type of document or record in which it is found,” the President directed in executive order 13526, section 3.1g. That provision was presumed to apply to PDBs, and now we finally know that it does.
Also, the order stated in section 1.5d, “No information may remain classified indefinitely.” Though this principle may seem like common sense, it has all too rarely been applied in practice.
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