35+ Years of Freedom of Information Action

Did Nixon Even Read the CIA’s Daily Briefs?

oval office image
President Richard M. Nixon meeting with national security adviser Henry A. Kissinger in the Oval Office, n.d. (Richard M. Nixon Presidential Library, Photo collections, Master Print File with Staff Individuals)
Published: Sep 14, 2016
Briefing Book #559

Edited by William Burr

For more information contact:
William Burr at 202/994-7000 ornsarchiv@gwu.edu.

Nixon’s Attention Focused on Kissinger’s Cover Memos That Packaged the PDB

Recently Declassified Kissinger Memos Include Nixon’s Handwritten Comments

Nixon, Kissinger, and the President’s Daily Brief

Washington D.C., September 14, 2016 - President Richard Nixon may never have even read the President’s Daily Briefs partially declassified and released by the CIA with great fanfare on August 24, 2016. The CIA’s claim that the PDBs were “the primary vehicle for summarizing the day-to-day sensitive intelligence and analysis … for the White House” is partly true, but Nixon’s prejudices against the Agency and the distinctive role of national security adviser Henry Kissinger suggest that his cover memos to the PDBs were far more important to the President than whatever the CIA had to say.

Kissinger served as Nixon’s de facto intelligence adviser and it was Kissinger, not the CIA, whom Nixon counted on to help him keep informed about global events. In part, Kissinger did this each day by sending Nixon a memorandum prepared at the White House Situation Room, to which the PDB was appended, that consisted of Kissinger’s take of what developments were important for Nixon to keep in mind.

As a contribution to the ongoing discussion about the role of the PDBs in the Nixon White House, the National Security Archive today publishes together for the first time the six Kissinger daily briefing memoranda from 1969 through 1973 that have been declassified so far.

Three of the cover memos demonstrate that Nixon reacted to some of Kissinger’s daily briefing memos by writing comments and questions on them. Some of the comments were critical, e.g., about Peruvian President Juan Velasco whom Nixon believed owed the U.S. “good deeds” in light of recent emergency aid for earthquake victims (see Document 2B). Or a reaction to an item about the slow response to North Korea’s capture of a South Korean “propaganda ship”: “Disgraceful!” An item from January 1972 included a denunciation of U.S. Air Force strategy in Southeast Asia, which Nixon deemed a “failure,” and a demand for a study of the problem, which Kissinger ignored (see Document 5A).

One of the Kissinger memos, from 14 December 1971, includes fascinating intelligence information concerning the 1971 India-Pakistan war. One item in the memo demonstrates that U.S. intelligence was able to interpret Soviet reconnaissance satellite activities – for example, whether the photographic intelligence satellites were directed at airfields and other installations in India and Pakistan. Another item in the memo is a detailed report of a recent meeting of Indira Gandhi’s cabinet about the pros and cons of accepting a cease-fire once a government was installed in Bangladesh. The CIA provided the information based on a source in Gandhi’s cabinet, confirming Seymour Hersh’s finding in The Price of Power that the CIA had a highly-placed mole in the Indian government.

That Nixon may not have read the PDBs was a point that CIA historian David Robarge made in his presentation at a recent Nixon Presidential Library conference. Presidents Kennedy and Johnson had been regular consumers of the CIA’s daily briefing paper; Kennedy in particular gave feedback to the Agency. The situation changed greatly, however, when Nixon became president. According to John Helgerson’s fascinating study, Getting to Know the President: Intelligence Briefings of Presidential Candidates, 1952-2004, CIA officials who worked at a special transition office in Manhattan soon learned from Kissinger, the newly appointed national security adviser, that “the president-elect had no intention of reading anything that had not at first been perused and perhaps summarized by one of his senior staff.” (p. 68).

During the transition, the CIA sent Nixon envelopes filled with PDBs and other reports, but they simply piled up. Nixon had not read them and his secretary soon returned them. Some of that probably reflected the new president’s animus toward the CIA; since his defeat in the 1960 presidential election he had believed the CIA had mishandled the “missile gap” by overestimating Soviet capabilities, which had worked to Kennedy’s advantage in the campaign. To tailor the PDBs to Nixon’s liking, CIA officials tried to get a sense of his preferences from his close advisers. Accordingly, the CIA double-spaced the text and put it on legal size paper (reflecting Nixon’s professional background). But the Agency never received feedback from the president; it would only come from Kissinger.

What is known is that for Nixon the “primary vehicle” for receiving intelligence information was Henry Kissinger, who essentially acted as the president’s chief intelligence officer. Consistent with what CIA officials had been told about Nixon’s working methods, every working day he would receive a memorandum from Kissinger, prepared by the White House Situation Room staff, to which was appended the PDB and sometimes other documents that Kissinger thought Nixon needed to see. Kissinger’s cover memo, usually around 3 or 4 pages long, summarized the events and developments that he believed Nixon would want to know about, including the most recent events not covered by the briefing material. Sometimes there was a connection between the information summarized in the cover memo and the PDBs, but sometime, it seems, there was little relationship between the two.

A March 1970 report to Kissinger by the RAND Corporation’s Andrew Marshall, then serving as a White House consultant, addressed the apparently ephemeral role of the PDB in President Nixon’s reading. Marshall explained how the Situation Room staff prepared the briefing memo for Kissinger’s signature, partly on the basis of contributions from Kissinger’s aides and the reproduction of items from various intelligence publications. According to Marshall, “the memorandum signed by you and prepared in the Situation Room is a success; it probably is the only part of the package which the President regularly reads. Indeed, judging from a survey of marginal jottings by the President, it may be the only piece he ever reads.” This raised various problems: did the one-third overlap between the PDB and the Situation room memo raise the risk that important intelligence might get overlooked? Or was the PDB a “wasted effort”? Wondering whether the PDB can “be saved or made useful,” Marshall raised questions about possible changes in the Situation Room product and the feedback process so that it would be even more useful to the President.[1]

 So far only six of the Kissinger/Situation Room memos have been reviewed and declassified in their entirety; excerpts from a few can be found in the State Department’s historical series, Foreign Relations of the United States (For example, an excerpt from 1973. These six are a thimble full of water compared to a lake, because the complete record of the briefing memos and the attached PDBs and other materials consists of 61 archival boxes at the Nixon Presidential Library. That collection begins with documents dated 1 January 1969, three weeks before Nixon’s inauguration, and concludes with material dated 9 August 1974, the last day of Nixon’s presidency. Except for the six memos and the excerpts in FRUS, the entire collection remains classified, although it is slated to become a major declassification project at the Nixon Library during the next year. A partial list of the collection appears on the Nixon Library web site; for a complete inventory see Document 7. Only a declassification review of that material, with all of the attachments, will shed light on the intelligence items that Nixon read daily and whether he read the PDBs, with comments and questions, in the same way that he read Kissinger’s cover memos.

It is worth noting here that the briefing material that Nixon received from Kissinger every day was only one aspect of their working relationship. Every work day Kissinger met with Nixon to discuss ongoing developments and decisions. The times and places of the frequent meetings were recorded in the “Presidential Daily Diary.” Apparently Kissinger took handwritten notes during these meetings so he could follow up on Nixon’s instructions. If such notes still survive and ever become available to researchers, they will be an invaluable resource for tracing national security policy during the Nixon years. The same can be said about any diary material that Kissinger and Nixon prepared when they were in office.[2]

Making this discussion of PDBs even possible was the series of actions and decisions that led to their release, first from the Kennedy-Johnson years, then the Nixon-Ford period. Included in the Kennedy-Johnson release were the three specific PDBs that the CIA had gone to the mat for when the National Security Archive sued the Agency, on behalf of Professor Larry Berman of the University of California Davis, for those documents. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against release on the grounds that disclosure could “reveal protected intelligence sources and methods.” Nevertheless, the Court gave an opening for future declassification by rejecting the CIA’s “attempt to create a per se status exemption for PDBs.” President Obama further undercut the CIA’s assertion that PDBs were impossible to declassify by asserting in Executive Order 13526 that “No information may be excluded from declassification … based solely on the type of document or record in which it is found. Rather, the classified information must be considered on the basis of its content.” What part the Obama administration may have played in impelling the Agency to declassify the PDBs remains to be learned, but members of the CIA’s Historical Advisory Committee, including Professors Robert Jervis and Melvyn P. Leffler, played a significant role by regularly pressing the CIA leadership to begin declassification review.


Read the Documents


[1]. Memorandum From the Consultant to the National Security Council (Marshall) to the President's Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger), 18 March 1970, U.S. Department of StateForeign Relations of the United States, Vol. III Organization and Management of U.S. Foreign Policy, 1969–1972 (Washington, D.C., 2006), pp. 424-431.

[2] . For Kissinger’s diary or “office journal,” see Seymour Hersh, The Price of Power: Kissinger in the White House (New York: Summit Books, 1983), 108, 112, 583-584, 621, and 637.

[3] . Nixon had made such complaints before and would continue to do so, with Kissinger doing the same. For example, in August 1970, Nixon wrote on a Kissinger memorandum on “Air Activity in Southeast Asia”: “This study shows the hopeless inadequacy of Air Force. I want a new study for a new approach.” In February 1971, in a meeting with JCS Chairman Thomas Moorer and Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird, Nixon said: “I assume that our Air Force, as usual, does not have the capacity to know how to hit such [North Vietnamese/NLF] headquarters, is that correct?” See Documents 13 and 140 respectively, U.S. Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1969–1976, Volume VII, Vietnam, July 1970–January 1972 (Washington, D.C., 2010), pages 26 and 429. Later in January 1972 both Nixon and Kissinger complained about the Air Force treating it as a problem that was not correctable. According to Kissinger: “[I]t’s one of the worst disgraces, that here the great U.S. Air Force can’t keep a road from being built” on the Ho Chi Minh trail. Later Nixon observed, “I don’t know what we can do. We don’t have any cards there, Henry, nothing but the damned Air Force, but we’ll use it. We’ve got to use the Air Force.” For this and other examples, see Document 2, U.S. Department of State,Foreign Relations of the United States, 1969–1976, Volume VIII, Vietnam, January–October 1972 (Washington, D.C., 2010), pp 9-10.