Monday, September 24, 2012

The creation of highly classified documents (or: what you won't find on this blog)

Blogging will be slow this week as most activities in Israel grind to a halt over Yom Kippur, and will then stop as the ISA and most government agencies take a break over Sukkot. Essential offices and organizations never stop, but hey, we're the national archives, not some security branch--even if we do hold endless classified stuff created by the folks who work far from the public's gaze.

Speaking of spooks and their elected overlords, there's a fascinating article today in the Washington Post about how President Obama does or doesn't consume his intelligence briefings. Here at the ISA, we do our best to refrain from making any political statements in the Israeli context; American politics isn't a topic we even pretend to understand. So we're completely agnostic about the issue of the article, which deals with how good Obama is at his job. The reason we think it's so interesting isn't the politics, but rather the discussion of how one of the most classified documents in America is created: the Presidential Daily Briefing (PDB).

Among the findings of the article is that different presidents like to see different sorts of documents. Another is that some--Clinton, for example--read them carefully and then don't have much need for discussing them with some fellow, while others--Reagan seems to have been the extreme case--hardly read them at all and prefer listening. (The article doesn't go back as far as FDR, but since he was famous for listening and not reading in many matters, he probably did the same with his security briefings.)

Another interesting finding is that PDBs don't get declassified. Or maybe they will some day, but that day hasn't yet arrived. There are limits to transparency when it comes to what the spooks know and tell the leaders. Not everything is for public consumption--a sobering thought for the next time you read the daily newspaper or website and it tells you all about what this president and that prime minster know.

The article even has a link to a chapter of a book which describes some of the ways PDB's emerge. As a general rule, books are more intelligent than blogs and newspapers, so you ought to follow that link.

Is there an Israeli equivalent of the PDBs? There must be. Do we have them in the ISA? If so, we're not declassifying them. Well, maybe a week after the Americans do. The article does have some links to some of the very few PDBs which have been declassified ... in what's called a "sanitized" version. Here, see for yourself.

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