Friday, September 18, 2015

Releasing Classified Information: The Presidential Daily Briefs and Our Understanding of Cold War Decision Making

On Wednesday, September 16, 2015 the Central Intelligence Agency released 2,500 President's Daily Briefings (PDB).1 While this happened rather quietly for most Americans, it holds an amazing opportunity for those who are interested in presidential intellectual, political, military, intelligence, and institutional history (to name a few of the segments of historians). How can 2,500 redacted documents provide opportunity for so many researchers? To understand, one needs to have a primer about the documents themselves, as well as how intellectual historians work.

The President's Daily Briefing 

The President's Daily Briefing is a document prepared on a daily basis as a mechanism for the Central Intelligence Agency to inform the President of pressing intelligence developments in a simple package. A good way to think of them is as "Top News" provided by the CIA for Presidents. These documents, preceded by the President's Intelligence Checklists (PICL- pronounced pickle), provided the opportunity to give a broad overview of intelligence topics which were of interest to the Commander-in-Chief.

After the disasters of Kennedy's early presidency (including the Bay of Pigs), Kennedy became hesitant to rely entirely on the opinions and suggestions of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and intelligence acronyms (CIA, NSA, FBI, etc.). By receiving daily updates on pressing intelligence matters, Kennedy and his successors were, and are, able to stay on top of what was seen to be the most important foreign and domestic goings on. This issue became more important with the developments of the Cold War and improved communication between front line assets and their agencies, and I would suggest that this series of documents wouldn't have come to exist but for the pressures of the Cold War (that discussion though is for a later date).

These documents, due to the sensitive topics and danger associated with potentially revealing intelligence, were and are labelled as "eyes only." With such a designation, only the President could authorize their release to anyone, including the Vice-President (think how Truman knew nothing about the Manhattan Project until FDR's death). In fact, Kennedy did not authorize their release to Lyndon Johnson.2 After Kennedy's assassination, the number of individuals authorized to see these briefings has increased, but in theory that access could be rescinded at any time.

Why though should the everyday historian care about these documents? For that matter, why should non-historians care?

Intellectual History... or how on earth did they think of that?

Intellectual historians study the way that ideologies, philosophies, and theories are developed. In other words, how do people rationalize what is going on around them and translate that into works and actions. While many historians deal with aspects of this concept, intellectual historians do so directly and are one of the specialties within historical research that actively assesses current events in relation to their historic roots. For those who are interested, the Society for U.S. Intellectual Historians (S-USIH, pronounced "soo-see) offers a fantastic blog which offers interpretation of all sorts of contemporary concerns.3

One of the basic assumptions on which much historiography (that is historical literature) relies on is that people are highly influenced by the information that they have available to them at any given time. This is of particular importance to intellectual historians, as we intensively focus on the transmission and development of ideas as influencing the decision making, writing, and actions of individuals and groups. Historians have argued, for instance, that Truman's decision to drop the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was in part fueled by an interest to show superiority to the Soviet Union, who he believed, incorrectly, did not know about the Manhattan Project.4 In fact, one of the significant factors to Japan's future surrender was based on lack of available information, namely that the U.S. was bluffing when suggesting that the atomic bombings would continue uninterrupted until the Empire gave up.5

Why These Documents Matter

The answer to these document's significance is pretty straightforward. Having public access to these documents helps historians have more information to understand why Presidents since Kennedy have made the decisions that they have. Perhaps, what ended up being a failure was the best decision given the intelligence at hand at the time. Maybe, Presidents ignored good intelligence in favor of political expediency. By examining these documents, we can get a better picture of how Presidential decision making worked. When joined together with other resources, including those available now from Russia, historians can provide more accurate assessments of flash-points in the Cold War, some of which the general public knew nothing about.

It is important to note that elements of these documents have been redacted and selectively released. Don't anticipate learning anything new about aliens, government mind control, or government conspiracies (if that's your thing I can't really help you anyway). We can though use these documents to gain a better understanding of the real limitations that holders of the nation's highest office faced. I fully intend to take a look through the collection for gems, and I hope that if you're interested you will too. Make sure to stay tuned, as this is an ongoing project from CIA and the Historical Review Program, and they've indicated that new documents related to Nixon and Ford will be coming soon.

A special thanks to NPR's Morning Edition for reporting on this story Thursday, September 18, 2015. Their story can be found here.


1. U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, "CIA Releases Roughly 2,500 Declassified President’s Daily Briefs," News and Information, Accessed September 17, 2015,

2. Mansfield, Celia, ed., The President's Daily Brief: Delivering Intelligence to Kennedy and Johnson, (U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, 2015),  5. Accessed September 17, 2015,

3. The Society for U.S. Intellectual History blog is available at Also, the organization has an active Twitter base which tweets using #USIH. *For disclosure purposes, I am an active member of the organization.*

4. U.S. Department of Energy Office of History and Heritage Resources, "Potsdam and the Final Decision to Use the Bomb," The Manhattan Project- An Interactive History, Accessed September 17, 2015,

5. U.S. Department of Energy Office of History and Heritage Resources, "Japan Surrenders," The Manhattan Project- An Interactive History, Accessed September 17, 2015,

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