- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 16, 2015

AUSTIN, Texas — On the morning of Oct. 18, 1962, 36 hours into the Cuban Missile Crisis, the CIA presented President John F. Kennedy with the sobering news that seven out of 12 potential Soviet launch sites in Cuba “now have missiles on launcher,” and at least some of them are “probably operational.”

That’s just one of the nuggets contained within a 19,000-page treasure trove of secret documents the CIA declassified on Wednesday, an unprecedented mass release of daily intelligence briefs the agency once crafted for Presidents Kennedy and Johnson.

The roughly 2,500 briefs, spanning from 1961 through 1969 and now publicly accessible and searchable on a CIA website, present an unparalleled window into the conclusions and inner workings of American intelligence in a bygone era.

But there is a catch: Some 20 percent of the material in the documents has been whited out — considered still too sensitive for public dissemination a half-century later.

Despite the passage of time, intelligence officials felt extensive redactions were necessary to protect “national security,” according to a CIA fact sheet. Even in the missile crisis brief given to Mr. Kennedy, chunks of information are missing.

The release was the highlight of a ceremony at the LBJ Presidential Library on Wednesday with CIA Director John Brennan and Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper in attendance.

The material covers a momentous period that witnessed the assassinations of President Kennedy, his brother Robert and Martin Luther King, along with a string of international Cold War clashes from the standoff with the Soviet Union over Cuba to the Johnson administration’s struggles in the Vietnam War.

But the documents also run the geopolitical gamut — from India-China border violence to civil wars in Yemen and the Congo, the reign of Mao Zedong in China and Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt, the construction of the Berlin Wall and the Six-Day War between Israel and Arab states.

Wednesday’s release includes the “President’s Intelligence Checklist,” typically an eight-page brief produced daily for President Kennedy and known in the intelligence community as the “Pickle” because of its acronym: PICL.

It was the precursor of the “President’s Daily Brief,” which the CIA began producing for President Johnson in 1964 and that the intelligence community continues to this day to produce, albeit in a revised digital format, for President Obama.

“The PDB is among the most highly classified documents in all of our government. It represents the intelligence community’s daily dialogue with the president in addressing the challenges and seizing the opportunities related to our national security,” Mr. Brennan said Wednesday. “For students of history, the declassified briefs will lend insight into why a president chooses one path over another when it comes to statecraft.”

President Kennedy’s assassination is barely mentioned, aside from one brief on Nov. 25, 1963 — just three days after he was shot in the head in Dallas. The brief alerts newly appointed President Johnson that “press stories to the effect that Lee Harvey Oswald recently visited Mexico City are true.”

Soviet obsession

The briefs portray the sheer level to which American intelligence officials were obsessed throughout the 1960s with countering the Soviet Union’s efforts to spread communism across the globe.

They offer a near-daily drumbeat examining internal workings of the Kremlin, the personalities of its leaders and its weapons deals with foreign nations from Indonesia to Latin America.

They paint a picture of a CIA with bugs and human sources deep inside the Soviet regime. In a pre-Internet age, and when even television was still a relatively new thing, the agency appeared to know almost every movement and statement of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev.

As President Johnson was informed in the brief for Dec. 9, 1963, “Khrushchev was still talking to the central committee plenum as of the time we went to press this morning.”

It was also a time before political correctness had seeped into the American lexicon, let alone the language used by the CIA briefers in their top-secret surveys.

Some of the PDBs are downright jocular. One from Nov. 17, 1966, highlighted by Mr. Brennan, refers to Ecuador’s then-provisional leader Otto Arosemena Gomez as a “high living, fifth-of-Scotch-a-day man.”

“Back then, articles were full of colorful language and personal asides that would never make it past a PDB editor today,” the CIA director said.

But the briefs also provided excruciatingly detailed and condensed analysis on potential threats to U.S. interests in almost every corner of the world.

In February 1962, President Kennedy was informed that Nasser, the leader of Egypt, was “promoting Middle East turbulence.”

“His incessant propaganda attacks on Saudi Arabia and Jordan during the past several months have begun to give them the jitters,” the assessment said.

A PDB from 1963 refers to Chinese attempts to urge the Soviet party to “get rid of Khrushchev.”

Another report details the coup that year in Syria and the role played in it by Hafez Assad, the father of current Syrian President Bashar Assad.

President Johnson was given intelligence on the Six-Day War between Israel and neighboring Egypt, Jordan and Syria. “Early this morning the Jordanian prime minister told our embassy that Israeli tanks were moving into northwestern Jordan,” stated one brief. “The ultimate aim of such a movement might be to attack Syria.”

But one of the largest enemy military campaigns of the Vietnam War — the Tet Offensive — carried on for a full five days before President Johnson was told “there are signs that the enemy intends to conduct a prolonged offensive against the major population centers.”

Mr. Brennan acknowledged Wednesday that the “CIA missed some important calls,” most notably the severity of the Tet Offensive.

At the same time, he asserted, “Just as collecting intelligence often requires physical courage, reporting it requires intellectual courage — the proverbial ability to speak truth to power, and that quality shows in the agency’s coverage of the conflict that overshadowed all others of the era — Vietnam.”

Still keeping secrets

However, such nuances may be lost in the large number of redactions intelligence officials made before making the PDBs public. Agency officials declined to comment on the reasoning behind the whited-out sections.

The sense among former intelligence officials is that sources and secret information-gathering techniques remain sensitive despite the passage of time — even decades later.

The CIA apparently determined that the 1960s material contained nuggets that might reveal sources in a way that could still endanger individuals who once worked with the agency overseas — or hurt ongoing U.S. intelligence-gathering efforts.

“The kind of stuff they redacted is typically the sourcing information,” said Paul D. Miller, a former CIA analyst who now serves as associate director of the University of Texas at Austin’s Clements Center for History, Strategy and Statecraft.

“When I was writing PDBs, I might say a head of state in some part of the world is considering starting a war, according to such-and-such a source. Well, that may be redacted from these documents because [CIA officials] don’t want to tip their hand on how we get our information.”

“There’s no reason to make it easier for Russian intelligence officials reading these documents to figure out how we spied on them back then, which is oftentimes the same way we spy on them today,” Mr. Miller said.

That being said, intelligence officials have promoted the release as an example of a shift toward much needed “transparency” within the U.S. government. President Obama said he would push hard for such a shift during his time in the White House — an era that has seen widespread criticism that the U.S. government classifies far too much material for far too long.

A CIA fact sheet noted Mr. Obama’s signing of a 2009 executive order calling for all classified material to “undergo declassification review and release after 25 years.”

One prominent example of redaction involves the death of leftist South American revolutionary and longtime Fidel Castro confidant Ernesto “Che” Guevara, long believed to have been the target of a 1967 CIA assassination plot in Bolivia.

Guevara’s name appears in no less than 43 separate briefs. One in May 1967, five months before his death, states: “‘Che’ Guevara, Castro’s will-o’-the wisp guerrilla theoretician who disappeared from the Cuban scene in 1965, may be with the guerrillas in southeast Bolivia.”

A roughly seven-line section is then redacted. And the next reference to Guevara, on Oct. 14, 1967, is nearly entirely redacted. What is left on the page states: “Fingerprints taken from the body of ‘Che’ Guevara … [whited out section] … confirm that the slain leader was indeed Guevara.”

A week later, the following assessment is given: “Reports are filtering in on the reaction of Latin American radical leftists to ‘Che’ Guevara’s death. These reinforce our view that Guevara’s fate was the sharpest psychological blow ever suffered by Castro’s guerrilla warfare program in the hemisphere.”

“Extremists are disheartened and the Moscow-line parties now have effective new ammunition for arguing against the Castro guerrilla warfare line. The defeat in Bolivia comes at a time when rebel groups in Venezuela, Colombia and Guatemala are also suffering reverses at the hands of the military. Nothing we have seen, however, suggests that Castro has any intention of discontinuing his efforts to export revolution.”

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