The CIA pulled the veil back Wednesday on long-classified foreign intelligence briefings it gave President Nixon in the 1970s during both the height of his power and his fall from grace, a period of intense turmoil at home and abroad.
The release of 2,500 President’s Daily Briefs — about 28,000 pages in all — shed light on such historic events as Nixon’s opening to China, the invasion of Cambodia, the U.S.-backed overthrow of an elected leader in Chile, the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, and ultimately the first resignation of a sitting U.S. president.
The release also covers briefings given to President Ford, who took over when Nixon resigned on Aug. 9, 1974, until he left office in January 1977. That period included the fall of Saigon and the end of America’s bitter war in Vietnam.
CIA Director John Brennan and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper released the briefs and other documents at a symposium at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda.
It’s difficult to gauge how much the high-level CIA product influenced Nixon’s thinking and decisions since, aloof and isolated, he chose not to receive face-to-face briefings by CIA officials during his time in the White House.
He relied on his national security advisor, Henry Kissinger, to forward the written summary and other material every morning, leaving CIA officials discouraged at their lack of access, according to a declassified 1996 agency history of the CIA-Nixon relationship, also released Wednesday
Nixon carried a grudge against the CIA for his loss to President Kennedy in 1960 election, believing the agency had failed to debunk Kennedy’s false claim that the U.S. had fallen behind the Soviet Union in intercontinental ballistic missiles, the so-called missile gap.
Other than in formal or ceremonial meetings, Nixon never met privately with the three CIA directors who served under him. He only had a single telephone conversation with William E. Colby, who headed the spy service during the resignation scandal.
“When you did brief him on something, he looked like his mind was on other things—he may have been thinking about Watergate, I guess,” Colby later told a CIA interviewer, according to the documents.
The CIA briefs ran about 10 pages a day, and often contained mostly news items and mundane political analysis from hot spots around the globe, a useful service in the era before 24-hour cable news and the Internet.
They contain several references to satellite surveillance and other high-tech intelligence gathering tools. But sensitive passages about covert operations and secrets stolen by undercover operatives are blacked out in the released documents.
The papers still contain fascinating tidbits.
Though Nixon publicly called his 1972 visit to China “the week that changed the world,” his four-page intelligence brief on the day of his arrival in Beijing contained only two paragraphs on the trip.
The material reveals how little the CIA’s China watchers knew about the Communist leaders of the world’s most populous country, then just emerging from more than two decades of isolation.
“The pattern of appearances at the opening ceremonies during President Nixon’s trip to Peking suggests that Premier Chou En-lai is in a particularly strong position,” it read, referring to the Chinese official considered most open to better ties with the U.S.
The following day, the CIA summary offered two paragraphs of analysis on reaction in the Soviet Union, which saw the prospect of closer relations between Beijing and Washington as a threat.
“The Soviets are using their news media to cast President Nixon’s visit to China in an unfavorable light,” the briefing read, noting that the Communist Party newspaper “characterized the trip as being predicated on common hatred for the Soviet Union.”
After Nixon flew home, the CIA reassured him that the visit had been considered a success in Beijing. “Chinese leaders are generally pleased with the Presidential visit as a whole,” that day’s briefing read, echoing headlines that appeared around the globe.
The election of leftist Salvador Allende as president in Chile in 1970 prompted Nixon to worry that the country could become “another Cuba,” a communist toehold in the Western Hemisphere.
For the next three years, Nixon and Kissinger used the CIA to clandestinely back Allende’s opponents in hopes of driving him from office or fomenting a coup.
On Sept. 1, 1973, Allende was killed during a coup launched by army Commander-in-Chief Augusto Pinochet, setting off decades of bitter dispute over the role the CIA played in his overthrow.
Though the daily briefs focus frequently on the broken Chilean economy and the growing strength of the opposition, the released documents offer no details to confirm direct CIA support for the military putsch.
Developments in Indochina — where the U.S. was trying to extricate itself from the war in Vietnam and prop up failing governments in neighboring Cambodia and Laos — received intense attention in Nixon’s daily intelligence summaries.
A brief item on Feb. 4, 1974, reveals that even minute details about Cambodia’s communist rebels, known as the Khmer Rouge, gleaned from U.S. intelligence eavesdropping operations, were being forwarded to the White House.
“An intercept of February 1 indicates that a meeting of the standing committee of the Khmer Communist Party is being called for February 5 or 6 at an undisclosed location,” the summary reported.
Among the most gripping reports are those describing the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. Day after after day, Ford’s intelligence brief recounted the collapse of South Vietnam’s U.S.-trained army as city after city fell under the control of communist forces.
The CIA’s analysis proved wildly off base, however.
On March 28, 1975, a CIA analysis sent to Ford predicted that the South Vietnamese government would hold out until “early 1976.” Communist troops captured Saigon a month later.
“The flag of the Viet Cong’s Provisional Revolutionary Government was hoisted over the presidential palace at 12:15 today Saigon time, marking the end of 30 years of war in Vietnam,” the opening paragraph of Ford’s intelligence summary read that morning.
Ford proved a far more avid consumer of CIA intelligence than Nixon.
He became the first president to receive an oral briefing by a CIA official on the daily intelligence summary — a practice most of his successors have followed, though with varying degrees of interest.
After Ford was sworn in on Aug. 9, 1974, his CIA briefing noted that Nixon’s announcement the day before that he would resign had produced a rare day of global calm.
“The world in the past 24 hours has seemed to mark time as the U.S. succession process worked itself out,” the CIA said. “None of the potential trouble-makers has produced even a rumble.”
The release is part an ongoing CIA effort to declassify presidents’ intelligence summaries. Last year, the agency released 19,000 pages of briefings from the Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson administrations.