President Barack Obama’s executive order last Tuesday to declassify millions of secret U.S. government document delighted left-wing “open government” groups, but it may render impotent one of the intelligence community’s most vital tools: the President’s Daily Brief, or PDB.
Described as “the most highly sensitized classified document in the government,” every one of the overnight-written reports the commander-in-chief receives each morning from the CIA and other spy agencies, going back decades, would eventually be required by law to be revealed under Obama’s newly-established National Declassification Center within the National Archives.
As the White House describes the massively lengthy executive order, which approaches 13,000 words, “For the first time, it establishes the principle that no records may remain classified indefinitely and provides enforceable deadlines for declassifying information exempted from automatic declassification at 25 years.”
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According to the president’s order, “No information may remain classified indefinitely.” And while much of the order does not take effect until mid-2010, some provisions do, such as the directive that “all classified records that (1) are more than 25 years old and (2) have been determined to have permanent historical value under Title 44, United States Code, shall be automatically declassified whether or not the records have been reviewed.”
Virtually every President’s Daily Brief ever produced, of course, would be considered to be of “permanent historical value” by historians. As Meredith Fuchs of the National Security Archives, a non-governmental research institute, told National Public Radio last week, the Obama order “would lead to the release of hundreds of thousands, millions of pages of records related to World War II, the Vietnam War, Korean War, I mean, things that historians are really eager to get their hands on.”
Previous administrations have judged national security to be of more importance than the yearning of scholars and journalists for state secrets, however.
For example, a March 2003 executive order by President George W. Bush gave the CIA veto power over the declassification recommendations of the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel (ISCAP), the governmental body established by a President Bill Clinton executive order in 1995. Legitimate CIA objections citied by Bush include determining that release of “the information could reasonably be expected to cause damage to the national security and to reveal (1) the identity of a human intelligence source, or (2) information about the application of an intelligence source or method (including any information that concerns, or is provided as a result of, a relationship with a cooperating intelligence element of a foreign government)…”
Obama’s order last week revokes both the Clinton and Bush executive orders, effective by the middle of this year.
The Bush 2003 order successfully prevented the release of, to cite one example, a 1968 President Lyndon Johnson PDB describing the implications of the Soviet Union’s manned space program. The Federation of American Scientists’ Project on Government Secrecy complained that the “CIA has consistently treated PDBs as sacrosanct and beyond the purview of ordinary mortals. Regardless of their specific contents, the fact that the PDBs served as their intelligence conduit to the president should render them permanently beyond legal access and independent review, the CIA seems to believe.”
Bush White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, in a May 2002 press conference, warned of the consequences of scrapping the rule that PDBs never become public.
Fleischer described “the overall principle about the President’s Daily Brief, which is shared with such an extraordinarily small number of people who are in a need-to-know situation, a need-to-know position, so they can use that information to protect the country, to prevent the next possible attack.”
Bush, Fleischer added, was “concerned with the fact that if the presidential daily brief, which is a highly sensitized – the most highly sensitized classified document in the government – if that document were to be at risk of public reporting, public release, the people who prepare it will hold back and not give the president of the United States, the person who needs the most information, they will be inclined to give him less, rather than more, because they fear it will get made public, and that could compromise sources or methods.”
George Tenet, CIA director under both Clinton and George W. Bush, in his book “At the Center of the Storm,” described the super-secret details contained in their PDBs, “the nitty-gritty on how we had stolen the secrets … it was an opportunity to pull back the curtain, to talk to the president about a sensitive source or a collection method.”
“The book,” as the CIA calls it, “was our most important product,” according to Tenet.
New Yorker staff writer Lawrence Wright in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book on the al-Qaida 9/11 plot, “The Looming Tower,” remarked on “a bizarre trend in the U.S. government to hide information from the people who most needed it,” in particular the wall the Clinton administration erected between the FBI and the CIA.
Has Obama now constructed a wall between himself and U.S. spy agencies, discouraging them from being candid about terrorism threats in their daily briefings – not only to him, but to future presidents?
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