The President’s Daily Brief: Kennedy, Johnson, and the CIA, 1961-1969
Once called "the most highly sensitized classified document in the government,” the President’s Daily Brief (PDB) is a Top Secret CIA digest of essential intelligence presented every morning to the president and a handful of his closest advisers. Spotlighting the most sensitive world flash points, the PDBs provide insight into what presidents knew and when they knew it about the most critical issues of the day.
The National Security Archive – in partnership with others in the academic community – was instrumental in paving the way for the first substantial release of PDBs through a campaign of public education and pressure finally leading to litigation. In 2007, the Archive joined with Professor Larry Berman, then a professor of political science at the University of California, Davis, in a suit against the CIA. Though the court denied the plaintiffs’ immediate request, it rejected the CIA’s attempt to obtain a blanket exemption for all PDBS, opening the door for the eventual release of the 2,500 documents and nearly 19,000 pages included in this collection.
These highly succinct records provide a day-by-day glimpse into the historic global challenges facing the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. Themes covered include Cold War conflicts over access to West Berlin; the Cuban missile crisis; the Vietnam War; the Six-Day War; conflicts sparked by decolonization in Africa, Indonesia, and the Middle East; political turmoil in Central and South America; NATO and EEC concerns; and reporting on the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, among other topics.
While the extreme secrecy that has shrouded these 40-year-old documents now seems dubious, this collection nonetheless serves as a rich source not only on a pivotal period in modern world history but on the workings of government and the national security system, especially presidential decision-making, CIA intelligence production, and government secrecy.
Tailored to the requirements of each president, PDBs reflect the CIA’s direct pipeline to the commander-in-chief on threats and opportunities relating to U.S. national security. The documents in this collection therefore open a window into how each president and the intelligence agencies supporting him assessed the highest daily priorities facing the U.S. government. They thus represent fresh input into the study of the U.S. policy process on a variety of levels. Above all, they help to understand how decision makers receive and utilize information in determining policy. (Combining these materials with the Digital National Security Archive’s collections on presidential directives will increase their value even more.) With coverage spanning several years, researchers can use the PDBs to analyze comparatively the interests, priorities and approaches of different presidential administrations. Students of the U.S. intelligence community will also find much raw material for understanding one of the most critical aspects of the community’s mission – keeping the president informed.
Finally, the period covered by this collection makes these materials particularly instructive. The 1960s were an era of heightened global instability and domestic social turbulence. These records thus provide students and researchers unusual insight into these critical events as they unfolded across the globe and at home, and allow them to assess their utility and significance from the particular vantage points of the White House and the U.S. intelligence community.
Among the important topics covered by these documents are: