Monday, June 6, 2011

PRIMARY DOC: A Look At The President's Daily Brief

A few days ago, I posted briefly about the importance of Primary Documents, and that led me to decide to download a whole clutch of Primary Documents and start a reading series.

First up:

"Government Response to Court Orders of February 23 and February 27"

Date: March 2nd, 2006
Authors: Marilyn A. Dorn, CIA Information Officer; on behalf of the CIA

Context: This isn't too long ago, but let's take a trip in the wayback machine to 2006, and one of the bigger scandals of the Bush Administration: the Valerie Plame affair (not going to recap: you can peruse Wikipedia or The Daily Show at your leisure).

This story is one of the more insiderish scandals of the Bush Administration - it lacks the "punch" of Hurricane Katrina and it's not an easily pointed to moment the way the "Mission Accomplished " banner is, but it's important in understanding the run-up to the Iraq War. Bottom line: people who brought information to the Bush Administration that agreed with the party line, like the infamous CIA source codenamed "Curveball", were rewarded; those who disagreed, like Plame's husband, were destroyed.

The case that prompted this memo was the prosecution of Scooter Libby, presumably to figure out what classified information was given to Scooter Libby when, to prove that he did in fact leak classified information.

But you know what, as crucial as the Valerie Plame scandal was, that's not what's interesting in this brief 22 page statement. That's basically just a contextual backdrop that prompted this document: a really succinct summation of the President's Daily Brief (PDB). It provides a little background why, as a for instance, it's an interesting change in policy for Obama to declassify an interesting one.

The PDB is a document assembled by the CIA each day (interestingly, not the Director of National Intelligence... still baffled about how these different intelligence agencies work together...) and presented directly to the President by a CIA briefer.

What's interesting about the PDB is that it's the most sensitive document produced by the CIA (at least according to this document), and it doesn't use cryptograms to refer to individuals, or mask sources. The CIA's contention is that the PDB is so sensitive that if it was released, even in a redacted form, it would be easy to figure out how such information was gathered. There's good reason to treat such claims with skepticism, but if true, it puts an interesting cast on the CIA's relationship to the Commander-in-Chief.

The image that is presented to the public is that the CIA shelters the President from the workings of the CIA; the idea that the President is directly involved in CIA at least to the degree that he knows where information comes from and how it's gotten makes it even more implausible to me that President Bush did not, for instance, sign off on torture, or to know how shaky the Iraq evidence was. The idea that President Bush put forward that Tenet gave him a "slam dunk" case and he approved it is an idea that subtly underplay's the President's involvement and knowledge.

This is why primary documents are important: politicians and government officials sometimes use our ignorance of the system to their advantage, to dissociate themselves from responsibility, to use fuzzy governance as a slight of hand and protect themselves from needing to take action.

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