Presidents Have Always Needed Unwelcome CIA Advice
The Central Intelligence Agency was created 70 years ago to prevent another Pearl Harbor and fight Soviet communism. Since then, almost every U.S. president has had his troubles with the agency. But until now, none picked a fight with the CIA between his election and his inauguration.
President Donald Trump is going to have to decide how he wants to coexist with his premier spy service. Resentful of its conclusion that the Russian government backed his bid for the White House, Trump is already talking about restructuring it. Like it or not, he’ll have to take its views into account.
History has demonstrated that it’s dangerous when the CIA gets it wrong. And that it’s even more dangerous when a president disbelieves the agency when it’s right.
President Harry Truman started up the CIA in 1947, at the dawn of the Cold War, in the hope that it could inform him better than the front page of the daily newspapers. But his own secretary of state warned him that the CIA could go out of his control. The neophyte intelligence service soon turned to covert operations against communism, and many were disastrous. They were coordinated with British intelligence, and the senior British intelligence officer assigned to Washington in 1949 turned out to be a Soviet mole.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower – who had run the biggest secret operation of World War II, the D-Day landing in France – knew the value of good intelligence and wanted to depend on the CIA. He was enthused early in his first term by successful CIA coups against the elected leaders of Iran and Guatemala. But in his second term, his director of central intelligence, Allen Dulles, failed to keep the White House and the Pentagon informed of precisely what the CIA was doing overseas. This led to spectacularly unsuccessful attempts to overthrow governments from Indonesia to Syria.
Ike concluded in 1960, at the end of his presidency, that American intelligence was in shambles. He said he was leaving, in his words, “a legacy of ashes” to his successor, President John F. Kennedy. Three months later came the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. Kennedy vowed to break the CIA into pieces and scatter it to the winds. The agency redeemed itself by providing forewarning of Soviet shipments of nuclear weapons to Cuba; that intelligence helped JFK avert a global war in 1962. At the same time, the CIA was plotting the assassination of Cuba’s leader, Fidel Castro. Castro would outlast 11 U.S. presidents.
President Lyndon B. Johnson wanted one thing above all from the CIA – a strategy to win the war in Vietnam. He was enraged when the agency advised that a cease-fire and a negotiated peace was the only way out. Director of Central Intelligence Richard Helms told LBJ bluntly in 1967 that the U.S. was “ill-suited to cope with guerilla warfare waged by a determined, resourceful, and politically astute opponent.” The president did not want to hear that. No president did – especially not Richard Nixon.
“What the hell do those clowns do out there in Langley?” Nixon railed, referring to the CIA's Virginia headquarters, in a 1970 tirade. One thing that Helms would not do was to obey Nixon’s command to cover up the 1972 break-in at Democratic Party headquarters in the Watergate Hotel. The Watergate operation was conducted by former agents of the CIA and Federal Bureau of Investigation – and Nixon’s orders, caught on his secret White House tapes, were for the CIA to tell the FBI to stop its investigation of the case on spurious grounds of national security. That was an obstruction of justice, and it led directly to Nixon's resignation two years later.
His successor, President Gerald Ford, suffered through a long Senate investigation of the history of the CIA, which revealed assassination plots and coup attempts but did not disclose that presidents had, in many cases, personally authorized them. Ford appointed a new director of central intelligence, George H.W. Bush, who loved the agency during the year he was in charge. Bush wanted to stay on at the CIA after Jimmy Carter was elected in 1976. “If I had agreed to that,” Carter said years later, “he never would have become president.”
Carter had called the CIA “a national disgrace” during the Senate investigation. But he wound up signing almost as many covert-action orders as Nixon and Ford. Most were aimed at undermining communism. Bob Gates – who served as CIA director under Bush and secretary of defense under his son, President George W. Bush, and then under President Barack Obama – wrote that Carter was “the first president since Truman to challenge directly the legitimacy of the Soviet government.” The credit for the Soviet collapse would go to President Ronald Reagan, but some should go to Carter – and the CIA.
Reagan’s CIA chief was the wily William Casey, and Casey was, in the words of his own deputy, “a freelance buccaneer.” He ran the CIA aground. Casey dreamed up a plot to generate millions of dollars to support anticommunist guerrillas in Central America by selling weapons to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and skimming the profits. When this scheme was exposed in 1986, the Reagan administration nearly ground to a halt as senior officials were investigated and indicted.
George H.W. Bush was the first president who had run the CIA, and he got along famously with the agency, especially after Gates took the helm in 1991. But the CIA missed the signs that the Soviet state was about to collapse. It had “no idea,” Gates wrote, “that a tidal wave of history was about to break upon us.” Nonetheless, the Cold War ended without shots being fired, much less nuclear missiles, and the CIA helped the White House keep its powder dry.
President Bill Clinton had thought little about U.S. strategic interests after the Cold War. His CIA went adrift in the 1990’s, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and before the fall of the Twin Towers. He met with his first CIA director, Jim Woolsey, twice in two years. “I didn’t have a bad relationship with the president,” Woolsey said. “I just didn’t have one at all.”
But by 2000 Clinton was deeply concerned by the rise of al-Qaeda and its terrorist mastermind, Osama bin Laden. He recalled telling his successor, “Your biggest threat is bin Laden.” George W. Bush swore he never heard those words. Perhaps he was not listening. Nor did he take seriously a CIA report in August 2001 with the headline: “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US.”
The most serious intelligence failure since Pearl Harbor was compounded when CIA Director George Tenet told Bush that the CIA had “slam dunk” evidence that Saddam Hussein was building nuclear, biological and chemical weapons. It didn’t. As a direct consequence, Americans are still fighting in Iraq. Bush himself said in 2004 that the CIA was “just guessing” about the course of that war. By 2008, the agency was in effect a second-echelon branch of the Pentagon. Generals took charge of American intelligence.
The CIA that Obama inherited was in large part devoted to paramilitary operations and drone strikes against suspected terrorists. The analytical powers of the CIA he will pass on have been revitalized in part by a huge infusion of funds from the Republican-led Congress. Those same Republicans now have to hold hearings on its conclusion that a Russian intelligence operation supported the election of Trump.
Intelligence is a human endeavor, and prone to error. Presidents are free to pick and choose from the CIA's reports. But if Trump seeks revenge for its findings on Russia's plot, or if he simply tunes it out entirely, it's more than a bad sign -- it's a danger to the national security of the United States.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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