The House Committee on Oversight and Reform continues to seek information about former President Trump’s removal of classified documents to Mar-a-Lago. On this week’s Now & Then episode, “Statecraft, Secrets, and Lies,” Heather Cox Richardson and Joanne Freeman used Trump’s break from norms to discuss historical controversies concerning the fragile balance between presidential secrecy and democracy, from President Grant’s caginess about his hopes of annexing Santo Domingo, to President Eisenhower’s lies about the U2 plane reconnaissance program. In the 1980s, Congressman Jack Brooks spearheaded another reckoning with executive branch opacity, mounting a multi-year effort to declassify secret national security memos.
In 1947, President Truman oversaw the creation of the National Security Council (NSC) and began to issue secretive memoranda about sensitive foreign policy and internal security issues. Occasionally, the directives would become public, either through leaks, intentional declassification, or congressional inquiry. The most famous early directive was NSC 68, which in 1950 laid out Truman’s vision of an arms stockpile to counter the bellicosity of the Soviet Union and became a foundational document of American strategy for the Cold War.
Each subsequent president continued issuing clandestine directives via the NSC. Kennedy and Johnson called them National Security Action Memoranda. Jimmy Carter called them Presidential Directives. And when Ronald Reagan entered the White House in 1981, he renamed the documents National Security Decision Directives (NSDDs).
Reagan quickly expanded the frequency and strategic significance of NSDDs, issuing 325 of the memos over the course of his presidency. NSDDs cropped up in the major foreign policy scandals of the decade. In NSDD 17 from January 1982, for example, Reagan gave the CIA authority to begin arming the anti-Communist Nicaraguan Contras, a decision that would spiral into the Iran-Contra Affair.
By the mid-1980s, Reagan’s reliance on NSDDs had become a major thorn in the sides of Democratic legislators eager to push government accountability in foreign policy and domestic surveillance.
Democratic Texas Representative Jack Brooks became the leader of the anti-NSDD movement. Brooks had been in Congress for three decades. He was a Lyndon Johnson protégé who quickly developed a reputation for independence. In 1956, he refused to sign the Southern Manifesto, the notorious pro-segregation platform that almost all his Texas colleagues cosigned. He was also one of only eleven Southern congressmen to vote for the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Brooks had long gone after presidents who he saw as abusing their power. President Nixon referred to Brooks as “the executioner,” due to the cigar-chomping Brooks’s lead role in drafting articles of impeachment against Nixon in 1974.
Beginning in 1984, Brooks, in his role as Chairman of the House Government Operations Committee, began to request information on a wide swath of NSDDs, bringing under public scrutiny several memos that otherwise would have remained secret.
Brooks first spoke out against NSDD 84, a 1983 document that mandated that all government employees with access to classified information undergo periodic polygraph tests and a stringent pre-publication review before publishing any books or articles. Reagan pursued the policy due to his aversion to politically damaging leaks. “I’ve had it up to my keister with these leaks,” Reagan had told aides shortly before issuing the NSDD.
Reagan promised a roll-back of the program in February 1984 after widespread congressional condemnation. The administration again promised to curtail NSDD 84 in December 1985, after Secretary of State George Shultz publicly refused a polygraph at threat of resignation. “The minute in this government I am told that I’m not trusted is the day that I leave,” Shultz told reporters. Shultz was eventually excused from the test and remained at his post.
Brooks alleged in 1986, however, that both the frequency of the polygraph testing and the draconian elements of the pre-publication review had continued unabated, arguing that the administration had simply transferred the program to the signing of a consent document, Form 4193, that effectively implemented the same security goals. The General Accounting Office estimated that some 290,000 federal officials had signed the form.
“This administration has begun a massive censorship campaign through the federal government, and while many thought that the president had decided to abandon the policy, it has not stopped,” Brooks told a House panel.
Brooks’s blitz against NSDDs also veered into an unexpected sector—data privacy. In 1984, the Reagan administration issued NSDD 145. This NSDD shifted encryption authority for sensitive computer data from the National Bureau of Standards’ 1977 Data Encryption Standard into the purview of a new standard devised by the National Security Agency.
Matters became more tense in October 1986, when National Security Advisor Admiral John Poindexter issued a follow-up memo that would use the new encryption system to monitor who was using potentially sensitive but otherwise open databases, including the popular legal depositories Lexis and Nexis.
Poindexter’s expansion of NSDD 145 followed concerns from the CIA and the Pentagon that the Soviets could cobble together a “mosaic” of information for advanced missile technologies using the collective resources of unclassified repositories.
New York Times reporter David Sanger summed up the impact of Poindexter’s expansion: “It subtly raised the specter of an effort by the nation’s intelligence agencies to monitor who is using hundreds of openly available computer data bases.”
Brooks had long criticized NSD 145, saying in 1985 that that the memo was “one of the most ill-advised and potentially troublesome directives ever issued by a president.”
Following Poindexter’s move, Brooks introduced the Computer Security Act of 1987, a proposal to stop the transfer of the new encryption standard to the NSA.
Brooks further explained his aversion to the Directive in February 1987 hearings for his proposed bill. “These actions represent an unprecedented expansion of the military’s influence into our society, which is unhealthy politically and potentially very dangerous,” Brooks said in his opening statement. “Clearly, the basement of the White House and the back rooms of the Pentagon are not places in which national policy should be developed.”
The NSA rescinded Poindexter’s surveillance expansion in March 1987. Brooks also subpoenaed Poindexter, but the official, under fire for his role in Iran-Contra, pled the 5th Amendment to avoid having to testify. A version of Brooks’s bill passed Congress in December 1987, ultimately keeping encryption oversight at the Bureau of Standards.
Following the NSDD 145 battle, Brooks teamed up with House Speaker and fellow Texas Democrat Jim Wright to apply further pressure on the NSC to release all NSDDs to his Government Operations Committee.
Wright wrote a strongly worded letter to National Security Advisor Frank Carlucci in July 1987: “I demand to see all national security decision directives issued to date and related implementing documents, and trust that you will make appropriate arrangements to assure that this is accomplished.”
Carlucci offered a profoundly non-committal response a month later: “While it is not all together clear what legislative purpose you foresee being served by such access, your request is being given the most serious consideration.” A year passed with no further action by the NSC.
Brooks and Wright responded to the stonewalling with a big legislative play: the drafting and sponsorship of the Presidential Directives and Accountability Act, which would officially alert Congress to the content of every NSDD.
Brooks held dramatic hearings for the bill beginning on August 3rd, 1988. Ohio Democrat and civil rights leader Louis Stokes, the Chair of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, gave testimony about the wide-reaching foreign policy implications of NSDDs. Stokes asked: “Is the secret policy of the United States the same as the public policy of the United States, and exactly what is the policy of the United States with respect to very sensitive matters such as terrorism, paramilitary covert actions, and so forth?”
Lee Hamilton, an Indiana Democrat who had preceded Stokes as House Intelligence Chair, also offered testimony about why he thought Reagan even utilized the NSDDs so frequently: “My impression is that it is kind of the path of the least resistance for them. It is an easier thing for a President to spell out the details of his guidelines, if you will, or his policy in a national security directive than it is to articulate publicly or even put it before the Congress.”
Brooks invited Colin Powell, Carlucci’s successor as National Security Advisor, to defend the utility of NSDDs before the Committee. Powell offered a letter declining to testify: “In accordance with the doctrine of separation of powers, members of the President’s personal staff who participate in the deliberative process through which executive policy is developed traditionally have not testified before Congress. This principle assures that the President will receive the frank and candid advice of his close associates.”
Powell’s declination was a sign of further disappointments to come for Brooks and his allies. The Presidential Directives and Accountability Act never saw a floor vote, and George H.W. Bush issued his first substantive National Security Directive (he dropped “Decision” from his nomenclature), a plan for building a stable government in Afghanistan following the end of the Soviet-Afghan War, in February 1989.
Now, as issues of secrecy reemerge in accounting for the irregularities in Trump’s handling of classified material, another Brooks-style reckoning over executive accountability and the official structures of state opacity may be in short order.
All of President Reagan’s NSDDs are now declassified—you can read them through the Intelligence Resource Program’s online collections. For more on Jack Brooks, pick up a copy of Thomas and Brendan McNulty’s 2019 The Meanest Man in Congress: Jack Brooks and the Making of an American Century.
And head to the Twitter account of author and Now & Then Editorial Producer David Kurlander for supplemental archival threads on each Time Machine piece: @DavidKurlander.
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