Here’s what CIA director John Brennan said last week:
For the first time ever, the Central Intelligence Agency is releasing en masse declassified copies of the President’s Daily Brief and its predecessor publications—some 2,500 documents from the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. This is just the beginning—some 2,000 additional declassified PDB documents from the Nixon and Ford administrations will be released next year,
How unexpected. How unusual. How odd. How welcome. The CIA is yearning to declassify long-secret records in the public interest. Do you wonder why?
I do. For one thing, the CIA’s position reverses a decade of legal arguments. For years, CIA lawyers paid by U.S. taxpayers (i.e.you and me) have argued, with apparent sincerity, that that the president’s daily brief could never be made public, lest the “national security” of the American people be cast into perilous danger.
CIA Director George Tenet once claimed the president’s brief could never be released “no matter how old or historically significant it may be.”
Last week, the threat to the American Way suddenly receded and the documents were made available for all to see, in heavily redacted form.
Why? Because senior agency officials understand that they have lost credibility in the court of public opinion and that they need to do something about it.
The CIA’s problem
The CIA has a perennial image problem that must be managed.
For example, the agency’s use of torture on suspected terrorists after the 9/11 attacks yielded little in the way of useful intelligence, according to the report of Senate Intelligence Committee, released in December 2014.
But the widespread use of torture did effectively discredit the U.S. government’s avowed policy of defending the rule of law, leading to a drastic loss of public support for the United States, especially in the Middle East.
The law, passed unanimously by Congress and signed into law by President George H.W. Bush in October 1992, mandated the release of all of the government’s assassination-related records within twenty five years, i.e. by October 2017.
Senator Dianne Feinstein and others in the Congress and the news media questioned whether the CIA’s cover practices in violation of international law were actually serving the interests of the American people.
To address the crediblity gap, three former CIA directors collaborated on an article, published in the Wall Street Journal. defending torture as a viable policy option “to save lives.”
Langley knows that the best defense is a good offense. There is no more profound threat to the CIA’s annual budget appropriation than the loss of support on Capitol Hill and the loss of credibility among Washington news organizations. The partial declassification of ancient records is one way to defuse criticism, to encourage the perception that the CIA is opening up.
As Brennan promised last week: This is just the beginning.
The CIA’s JFK problem
The declassification of the once-sacrosanct presidential daily briefings from the 1960s has the additional benefit of addressing the Agency’s long-running JFK problem.
Even the liberal Huffington Post reported last week that the CIA was interested in full disclosure while unnamed pathetic JFK “conspiracy theorists” were only interested in their own obsessions.
The HuffPo story was a success for Langley. The official theory of JFK’s assassination, as endorsed by the CIA, is that one “lone nut” killed the liberal American president for no discernible reason and then was killed by another lone nut for no discernible reason. While endorsed by the Warren Commission, this theory has never commanded majority support of the American people–not in late November 1963 and not in 2015.
This pervasive skepticism is a festering problem for the CIA. Senior officials in Langley are fully aware they are vulnerable on JFK. That’s why they seek to protect themselves institutionally. When independent scholar Max Holland argued that the American majority who doubted the Warren Commission’s theory had been duped by a KGB disinformation operation, the agency published his findings in its prestigious journal, Studies in Intelligence.
Will the CIA come clean on JFK?
Last week’s media campaign should be seen in the context of the looming obligations of the JFK Records Act of 1992. That law, passed unanimously by Congress and signed into law by President George H.W. Bush in October 1992, mandated the release of all of the government’s assassination-related records within twenty five years, i.e. by October 2017.
Whether the CIA will actually comply with the law is unknown.
Among the records scheduled to be released are hundred pages on the secret operations of CIA officers who figure in the JFK assassination story, including BIll Harvey, David Phillips, Anne Goodpasture, and Howard Hunt.
As Politico recently pointed out, there is much potential for embarrassment in these still secret JFK files.
In my personal opinion, the CIA is releasing heavily edited presidential briefings from the 1960s and 1970s, the better to justify postponement of key JFK assassination records in October 2017.
That’s why John Brennan suddenly wants to share.