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17 September 2015

Peter Pesavento Comments on the PDBs


Courtesy of Peter Pesavento.

From: Peter Pesavento
Sent: Wednesday, September 16, 2015 12:23 PM
To: 'FPSPACE[a_t]'
Subject: PDBs...some background history

Greetings Everyone.

I thought I would post this backgrounder on the PDB (President’s Daily Brief) set that CIA is having a symposium on later today at the LBJ library. Presenters and speakers include current DCI (Director of Central Intelligence) Brennan, Porter Goss (a former DCI), even the current DNI (Director of National Intelligence) James Clapper will be making comments.

But this soiree most likely would not have happened in the first place had I not made a bold decision in 1997 to attempt to get a PDB declassified.

I had at the time (in 1996 or so) recently read “The US Intelligence Community” by Jeffrey Richelson, and he had a section in that book talking about NIEs (National Intelligence Estimates). As I began to make inquiries of the archivists at LBJ, I learned about these PDB-type document family that had never been accessed for public release before.

I had wanted to declassify some of these PDBs to see whether President Johnson was interested in Russian space activies, which--according to a number of interviews I had conducted with LBJ adminstration personnel--claimed that he wasn’t. Almost all of those claimed Vietnam preoccupied him.

Good thing I didn’t take their word for it.

[Side note: PDBs are tailor-made to the Chief Executive’s interests and policy making trends. The CIA has on their reading room webpage an e-book about the PDBs, and how they evolved to each President’s interests and tastes.]

I figured that there was a fair possiblity that there might be Russian space news items in the PDBs, it’s just that I didn’t know where to begin. But the archivists at LBJ (in this time frame of the late 1990s) were exceptionally helpful.

I brought up that I was looking for materials about the Soviet effort to upstage Apollo 8 with a manned mission of their own, as well as a B-52 bomber crash inside the USSR in the Caucasus mountain range (during the approximate same time frame (the latter was mentioned in an article by Winslow Peck/Perry Fellwock that appeared in Ramparts magazine in 1972 if my memory serves), that apparently had been on an intel mission.

So the LBJ archivists went looking in the PDBs (with me giving them some time swaths to look for the items). The spot checks that they made in the PDBs for me didn’t uncover the B-52 crash, but they did indeed find stuff on the Soviet manned circumlunar aspirations for late 1968. As the one archivist told me, “I found something that has three paragraphs in it that you will really like.” [paraphrasing here]

So I asked for that PDB to be declassified.

Time dragged for three years as I went through some rounds of MDR appeal (Mandatory Declassification Review­not FOIA, and in many ways much stronger and at times quicker than FOIA), prior to in (if memory serves) 2000 the case was appealed to ISCAP. It wasn’t until 2011 that the first recognized PDB declassified for public release (actually an excerpt­the one paragraph on Soviet space activities was all that was let out) was disclosed, and it was my case. (As a matter of fact, it was my very first MDR appeal case I had engaged in.)

ISCAP is the Inter-agency Security Classification Appeals Panel in Washington, DC, and is kind of like the “Supreme Court” of declassification. (Of course, I am sacrificing some accuracy for brevity.) They don’t move very quickly, but they do move decisively.

But to my surprise what was released was not the document that I was told by archivists existed. That particular document (a “special report”) had to await being released (in redacted form to me) in 2014. But I have appealed the redactions to the Soviet manned circumlunar aspirations report to ISCAP, and that happened earlier this year.

The PDB released in 2011 had about Soviet ship tracking movements indicating a significant space shot in the offing.

As it turns out, President Johnson had a very keen interest in the Soviet space program, and there are numerous PDBs that have Soviet space activities entries in them. Some short (one paragraph), and some longer (a page for a “special report”). Sometimes over a series of days there would be updates on Soviet space activities as they occurred. The vast majority of these PDB excerpts are currently with ISCAP for declassification processing.

I currently have with ISCAP numerous PDB excerpts (that had elements redacted out of them by CIA) on the Soviet space program awaiting declassification processing.

I should also mention that I am currently the appellant that has the most MDR appeal cases with ISCAP­whether individual or corporate. It was guess-timated that I have about 40% of all cases on their docket. (Keep in mind that many of these cases have been there for many years­think five years, and some have been there much longer.)

I had made mention of some PDB materials relased to me in the Aerospace America two-part article serial published back in 2012. That focused on the Soyuz 1 materials.

My conclusion from all of these research experiences is this: US Government agencies are exceptionally reluctant to release materials that contain old secrets. But perseverance will win out.

From: Peter Pesavento
Sent: Wednesday, September 16, 2015 2:58 PM
To: 'FPSPACE[a_t]'
Subject: PDBs.... a little bit more

I thought I would provide the following anecdotes as well to my recollections.

There was a chance in the 2006/2007 time frame that the first PDB publicly released could have happened during the GWB administration, but it was not to be.

There was an argument at the White House (during this time frame in which my PDB appeal was being looked at) over another document that was ranked “confidential” in security classification, that was something akin to a biographical data sheet on a particular person. It was felt that if that was approved to be released, then similar argumentation could be applied to the PDB in my MDR appeal with ISCAP for its release as well. (I was informed by someone with knowledge of the proceedings that two Federal entities, perhaps NARA and the US State Department, urged the release of the PDB excerpt. CIA was dead set against it.)

But it didn’t happen.

I had even written a letter to Condy Rice (GWB’s national security advisor at the time) providing her with my views and arguments as to why the PDB of my ISCAP appeal could be released, without any damage whatsoever to the nation’s security. I had even included a copy of the JBIS periodical that had my 2003 paper in. That article’s title was “Declassified American documents show a broad and in-depth interest in Soviet space activities.”

But I never received a response.

Whenever the GWB library becomes operational and opens its files to researchers, I suspect that there should be a file with this material of mine in it. There may even be some internal correspondence on the subject connected to this letter.

Only time will tell, as to what some future researcher may find.