Newly-Digitized: JFK’s Daily Intelligence Briefings

By Stacey Flores Chandler, Reference Archivist

Keeping up with global politics in any era can be a challenge; with so much information to sift through, it can be tricky to know exactly what to focus on. This can be an even bigger problem for the President of the United States, who relies on the huge volume of information collected by multiple federal agencies to make decisions – and it’s a problem that’s partly solved by the highly-classified President’s Daily Brief, or PDB. With the PDB, intelligence experts condense the details they think the President should know about world events into a document that’s just a few pages long, which is then hand-delivered to the White House each morning.

The modern PDB is produced by the Director of National Intelligence, but in John F. Kennedy’s era, the briefing was created by the Central Intelligence Agency. Back then, a consolidated daily update was still a pretty new concept – having premiered during President Harry S. Truman’s administration in 1946 – and the CIA tried a few versions before landing on what they called the President’s Intelligence Checklist, or PICL (pronounced “pickle” by White House staff). Though the CIA once considered PICLs too sensitive to declassify, CIA staff and JFK Library archivists reviewed and opened much of the PICL material in our holdings between 2012 and 2019, and we’ve recently completed digitizing and cataloging these records for online public access. We’re excited to share these materials with you!

1. Goa: no action yet. A. Nehru maintains his position that Portuguese agreement to withdraw is the sole basis for a peaceful solution. B. Salazar in a pessimistic talk with Senator Dodd yesterday anticipated an Indian attack today and instructed his troops to "die defending Goa." C. We have no information that fighting has broken out and Nehru may still anticipate some move from Lisbon providing him with a basis for compromise. 
2. Congo. UN forces in Elizabethville began their offensive last night. Reports conflict on the progress of fighting but we are not optimistic over a quick UN victory. We have no information on how Adoula or Tshombe are reacting to the latest efforts to bring them together.
JFKNSF-353-001-p0012. PICL from December 20, 1961, updating the President on the liberation of the Indian state of Goa from Portuguese colonial rule over the previous week, as well as United Nations military activities in Congo. National Security Files, Box 353, “President’s Intelligence Checklist: General, December 1961.”

The PICLs have been preserved in the National Security Files collection for nearly 60 years, thanks to the work of Military Aide General Chester “Ted” Clifton. General Clifton was responsible for coordinating the PICL briefings, and as retired JFK Library Declassification Archivist Maura Porter has noted:

“The writing on the first page of the PICL is usually in General Clifton’s hand and indicates whether the President saw that particular PICL. Clifton’s notations – ‘P saw’; ‘P not seen’; or ‘Pres has seen’ – can be distinguished from another (unidentified) staff person’s notation, ‘President read.'”

Maura Porter, “New Release of the President’s Intelligence Check Lists (aka PICLs),” 1 August 2012.
The President's Intelligence Checklist. 10 January 1962. Handwritten annotation reads "P has seen."
JFKNSF-353-002-p0052. Cover page for the January 10 1962 PICL, with a handwritten notation reading “P has seen” by General Ted Clifton. National Security Files, Box 353, “President’s Intelligence Checklist: General, January 1962 (1 of 2 folders).”

Because the PICLs were a near-daily dispatch, they followed the President wherever he traveled around the world. While he was away from the White House, the PICLs were wired to his location, and staff members often scribbled a quick note – “Palm Beach,” or “HP” for Hyannis Port, for example – to indicate where JFK was when he received the briefing.

1962 January 27. 
From: Clifton
To: Captain Sheppard Eyes Only for the President
Handwritten annotation #1: President saw per Capt. Sheperd (Palm Beach)
Handwritten annotation #2: Following is today's checklist.
JFKNSF-353-003-p0096. Cover page for the January 27 1962 PICL, with handwritten “Palm Beach” annotation indicating that the President was in Palm Beach, Florida when he received this briefing. National Security Files, Box 353, “President’s Intelligence Checklist: General, January 1962 (2 of 2 folders).”

Though the PICLs are helpful for catching up on world events and even tracing the President’s whereabouts, historians find them especially useful for understanding the Administration’s priorities in foreign policy matters – and the wide range of global issues on the President’s mind at any given moment.

For example, the PICLs from late October 1962 often open with updates on the Cuban Missile Crisis – usually referred to as “the Cuban problem” – including details about missile locations and Soviet shipping operations. But the PICLs also reveal that the Cuban Missile Crisis wasn’t the Administration’s only international concern at the time. While much of the country focused on Cuba, the President and his team were also monitoring significant developments in the border conflict between India and China known as the Sino-Indian War; military activity in Vietnam and Laos; the relationship between Egypt and Yemen; requests for aid from the Congolese government; and other events unfolding throughout Latin America and Europe.

Occasionally, the PICLs also demonstrate how the President’s actions at home could reverberate on the world stage – especially on civil rights. Though some Kennedy Administration staff members (like Pedro Sanjuan) focused almost exclusively on the impact of domestic civil rights issues on international affairs, the PICL staff occasionally included updates on this topic, too. In early October 1962, one PICL relayed international responses to JFK’s actions to protect James Meredith from racist violence a few days earlier, when Meredith had arrived to enroll as the first Black student at the University of Mississippi.

October 1, 1962
8:24 p.m.
From: New York
To: Secretary of State
No: 993, October 1, 8 p.m.

Mississippi Incidents
Ahmed (UAR) said friends of US and most particularly those in Africa delighted at strong response of President to challenge in Mississippi. If President had not responded strongly, he would have lost inestimable amount of prestige. Ahmed said strong Presidential reaction particularly valuable because Soviet Bloc reps on all sides had been freely predicting weak response. Stevenson.
JFKNSF-357-002-p0011. A State Department update regarding the integration of the University of Mississippi, included in the PICL from October 2, 1962. National Security Files, Box 357, “President’s Intelligence Checklist: General, October 1962: 1-14.”

The PICLs remained a constant presence through the rest of John F. Kennedy’s Presidency; in fact, the records show us that a PICL was among the last documents the President ever read. The PICL for the morning of Kennedy’s assassination on November 22, 1963 carries a brief note stating that it was received at Fort Worth, Texas, and that the “President Read” it. Topics in this final Kennedy administration PICL include issues in the Soviet Union, Cambodia, Japan, Indonesia, and Vietnam.

1963 Nov 22

From: Gen Clifton
To: Eyes Only for the President

Cite: CAP 63679
The President's Intelligence Checklist, 22 November 1963

Handwritten annotation #1: 
Bromley Smith
Handwritten annotation #2:
President Read. [Illegible] rec'd Ft. Worth destroyed
JFKNSF-361-010-p0082. Cover page for the November 22 1963 PICL, indicating that the President received and read this document at Fort Worth, Texas. National Security Files, Box 361, “President’s Intelligence Checklist: General, November 1963: 15-22.”

As you browse the PICLs, you’ll likely notice a number of redactions, or blacked-out sections of text. These redactions represent information that is still considered too sensitive to release (for example, the names of local intelligence sources who have living descendants). You can learn more about declassification processes here, or contact JFK Library archivists at Kennedy.Library@nara.gov for details about submitting review requests for these items. As documents are further declassified through additional reviews, we’ll continue adding them to the digitized folders in the National Security Files.

You can find the complete run of the JFK Library’s PICLs in the digitized folders from Boxes 353 through 361 in the National Security Files finding aid, linked below.

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