They've Got a Secret

Larry Berman didn't really believe that a journal article he was writing in 2004 would break much new ground in telling the story of Lyndon B. Johnson and his conduct of the Vietnam War. Berman, a political science professor at the University of California at Davis, already had published two books on presidential decision making in the mid-1960s, when LBJ devised and executed his tragic plan to escalate U.S. military involvement in Southeast Asia.

Berman concedes that he filed a routine Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for the release of Johnson's presidential daily briefs (PDBs) -- the intelligence summaries the Central Intelligence Agency prepares for the President each day -- in part “as a matter of principle.” The briefs he wanted for the article are dated August 6, 1965, and April 2, 1968. They are part of the historical record, not contemporaneous accounts of current -- or even recent -- national-security matters. “The public has a right to know how these decisions are made,” Berman said in an interview.

Still, the professor wasn't surprised when the CIA denied his initial FOIA request; he knew the spy agency considers the President's daily briefs to be something akin to the crown jewels. So Berman appealed the initial denial to a federal court. And now, Berman finds himself enmeshed in the latest battle of the Bush administration's secrecy wars.

In a legal showdown with deep implications for the writing of history itself, the CIA has argued that no PDB, even one that's decades old, can be declassified. To reveal any of them, the agency contends, would allow enemies of the United States to piece together a “mosaic” of information, and so jeopardize the country's security.

The CIA also argues that the daily briefs -- which often include summaries of developments around the world and sometimes merely re-hash press accounts -- constitute an intelligence “method” that can't be disclosed. In addition, the agency says the PDBs are part of a president's communication with his advisers, and so are shielded forever by executive privilege.

The arguments seem to leap beyond the bounds of reality.

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Hundreds of hours of white House tape recordings from LBJ's presidency already have been released to the public; anyone can listen to them over the Internet. They include conversations LBJ had with such top advisers as Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy. Even real-time recordings from the White House Situation Room that were made during the 1965 crisis in the Dominican Republic -- which resulted in Johnson's dispatch of U.S. troops -- are publicly available.

Tens of thousands of documents from the Vietnam era already have been declassified. At the Johnson presidential library alone, Berman contends in his court papers, are the work files of LBJ's top security aides. They cover such topics as the Gulf of Tonkin attacks and troop deployments, and contain detailed notes and transcripts of 120 meetings Johnson had with his senior civilian and military advisers during 1967 and 1968.

But an even stranger oddity undercuts the CIA argument: A dozen PDBs from the Johnson White House already have been declassified. They're available in libraries and are posted on the Internet.

These include briefs dated the day before and the day after the two that Berman seeks. The August 7, 1965, brief outlines a naval skirmish between communist China and “two Chinese Nationalist patrol craft.” It briefly summarizes the military situation in Vietnam, as well as political events in Indonesia and Greece. Other declassified PDBs from the Johnson White House concern developments in the 1967 Arab-Israeli Six Day War -- arguably an event with greater security implications today than any secrets that might still be kept about Vietnam.

But the most famous declassified PDB of all isn't a musty historical document involving long-ago conflicts or long-dead politicians. It's the CIA brief given to President George W. Bush on August 6, 2001, and titled “Bin Ladin Determined to Strike in U.S.” That document and a similar terrorism PDB given to President Bill Clinton were released -- after much political pressure on the Bush White House -- as part of the 9-11 commission investigation.

The CIA concedes these releases, as well as the declassification of some PDBs relating to John F. Kennedy's assassination. But it says the LBJ briefings were declassified by mistake. And it argues that the public's easy access to them has no bearing on its argument that even the release 40-year-old documents from the very same administration could still harm the nation's security.

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The boldness and breadth of the CIA's claim, and the initial ruling in the agency's favor by federal District Court Judge David F. Levi in Sacramento, have alarmed the nation's top historians and political scientists. They see decades of law governing public access to presidential records -- many of them shaped by earlier fights over Vietnam-era documents and Richard Nixon's tapes and papers -- as being eroded. The American Historical Association and several other academic research groups have filed an amicus brief in Berman's appeal, and such notable presidential scholars as Fred Greenstein and Johnson biographer Robert Dallek are lending their prestige to the effort.

“What is this mosaic?” Dallek asked in an interview, referring to the novel CIA theory about damaging current security interests with the release of documents from a distant era. “What does this mean? This is an invention of some bureaucrat's imagination.” Dallek says that his own work with declassified documents, as well as with audiotapes involving such figures as Johnson, Nixon, and Henry Kissinger, convince him that most efforts to keep historical papers secret are aimed at avoiding embarrassment, not shielding legitimate security information. “What it always does is impoverish our knowledge of our country's past, impoverish our history,” Dallek says.

In its amicus brief, the historical association argues that having scholars obtain a “complete and accurate historic record” is vital to democratic society, because only with a full picture can the public understand how presidents come to make crucial decisions. The Johnson era is of particular interest, the historians say, because it was plagued by foreign-policy crises that were set against the backdrop of the Cold War, a period necessary to understanding contemporary history and current geopolitics.

Berman's case mirrors the recent revelation that the CIA and a host of other federal agencies were routinely going through public files at the National Archives and reclassifying documents that had been public for years. Included among the reclassified material were documents showing a faulty CIA analysis of Chinese military intentions during the Korean War, and complaints from the CIA's director about bad publicity the agency endured after failing to predict anti-American riots in Colombia in 1948.

In this sense, Berman's case -- now before a federal appellate court and possibly heading for the U.S. Supreme Court -- is part of its own “mosaic.” It's another piece of the expanding tapestry of secrecy the Bush administration seeks to throw over its own actions, and those of any other president who might one day be caught in the cold eye of historical truth.

Marie Cocco writes a column syndicated by The Washington Post Writers' Group.