Citing shift to openness, CIA declassifies Kennedy, Johnson documents

By Jordan Rudner
The Texas Tribune
Originally published Sept. 16, 2015

In a massive declassification, the Central Intelligence Agency on Wednesday unveiled roughly eight years of presidential daily briefings from the administrations of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson — the largest-ever release of such material.

The briefings, which touch on everything from the construction of the Berlin Wall to the space race, are “among the most highly classified and sensitive documents in all our government,” CIA Director John Brennan said Wednesday at an event at the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library in Austin. “For students of history, the declassified briefs will lend insight into why a president chooses one path over another when it comes to statecraft.”

Brennan said the declassification fit neatly in line with LBJ’s goal for his library — to tell the story of the 1960s “with the bark off.”

“You can’t get much further below the bark than top-secret intelligence reports,” Brennan added.

Significant portions of the declassified documents have been redacted, the result of security concerns that remain even 50 years after the documents were published, said Bobby Inman, former director of the National Security Agency, who spoke at the event. Some daily briefings — for example, the briefing from Aug. 13, 1961, the day the border between East and West Berlin was first closed — are missing entirely.

Inman said he was “relieved” to hear that a significant portion of the briefings had been kept from view.

The briefings “not only said what we knew, but it also said how we knew it,” said Inman, who is now a professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs. “You can often tell what you know without harming your sources, but even the slightest inference of how you got that information can lead to a catastrophic loss.”

The briefings, intended to fill in gaps in the president’s knowledge, rather than providing a comprehensive and redundant summary of events, were often written colloquially, Brennan said.

One brief Brennan cited, written in 1967, described an ambassador trapped in his car for 10 hours, causing the ambassador to ruin “both his clothing and the upholstery.”

Another brief explaining the North Vietnamese perception of Americans during the Vietnam War said members of the Viet Cong believed Johnson was “as confused as the man in the moon.”

Some briefs dispensed with traditional intelligence-sharing and struck an entirely human chord. The briefing from Nov. 22, 1963, the day of the Kennedy assassination, was dedicated to the deceased president — and included a poem by Spanish matador Domingo Ortega.

“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,” the brief read.

Brennan said he hopes the declassification, the result of hours of analysis, will inspire confidence in the government’s commitment to transparency.

“The release of these documents affirms that the greatest democracy in the world does not maintain secrecy for secrecy’s sake,” Brennan said.