AUSTIN, Texas — As the U.S. and Russia reached the brink of nuclear war in 1962, President John F. Kennedy received top-secret intelligence from the CIA that a new warhead launcher was spotted in Cuba.
Amid those grave concerns, the memo ends on a different note. A U.S. agent in Moscow describes “packed houses and enthusiastic applause” during a run of Russian performances by the New York City Ballet.
That report, given to Kennedy a day before the end of the Cuban Missile Crisis, is among roughly 19,000 pages of newly declassified CIA documents from the Cold War released Wednesday. Stamped “For the President’s Eyes Only” on some pages, the dossiers were delivered daily by the spy agency to the White House.
Known as the President’s Daily Brief— President Barack Obama is the first to swipe through his on a tablet — they are tightly guarded rundowns of CIA intelligence from around the globe. For the first time, some of the oldest briefs being made public, starting with those written in the 1960s for presidents Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.
Conspiracy theorists mining for signs of nefarious CIA plots are likely to be disappointed. Many of the briefs remain partially blacked out, and what isn’t won’t rewrite textbooks.
Instead, historians say, the memos reveal the real-time intelligence that shaped pivotal decisions made in the Oval Office after the Bay of Pigs and through Vietnam.
“These are an incomparable window into how a president thinks,” said William Inboden, who worked under President George W. Bush and now leads the Clements Center for National Security at the University of Texas at Austin. “When we’re reading these, it’s a mirror image of what the president’s concerns were.”
On Nov. 22, 1963, Kennedy awoke in a Fort Worth, Texas, hotel to an intelligence memo that concluded that a Soviet anti-missile paraded in Moscow appeared only designed for use in the atmosphere. In Japan, meanwhile, an election didn’t change the balance of power. At least one page in the briefing remains classified.
Later that day, after Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, the CIA published a second brief. It contained no intelligence but a poem Kennedy was fond of reciting.
“Bullfight critics ranked in rows/Crowd the enormous plaza full/But only one is there who knows/And he’s the man who fights the bull.”
Even for Johnson, who as vice-president was famously kept out of Kennedy’s inner circle, the CIA briefs would have been an unfamiliar sight until being abruptly elevated to commander in chief, said Mark Updegrove, director of the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin. The briefs in the days following Kennedy’s death also say almost nothing about the assassination, except for a how it apparently “acted as a catalyst” in ending a political stalemate in Italy.
As Johnson settled into office, the briefs became heavy with intelligence from Vietnam, and by the fall of 1967, a section titled “Special Daily Report on North Vietnam” was added. Inboden said the CIA reports appear to show Johnson becoming so concerned with eroding public support that he sought updates on what Hanoi thought of war protesters back in the U.S.
The release of the briefs was paved by a 2009 executive order from Obama stating that all classified materially will automatically undergo a declassification review and release after 25 years. The full collection of briefs from the Kennedy and Johnson era are posted on the CIA’s website.