USA Politics Decoder

Trump isn't the first president to distrust US intelligence

Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Ford all resented the CIA, but they learned to work with it when unexpected crises hit.

President-elect Donald Trump talks to members of the media as retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn looks on in Palm Beach, Fla., in December. Both men have been sharply critical of US intelligence agencies.
Carlos Barria/Reuters
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The president-elect was hostile towards the CIA and other US intelligence agencies. He believed their mistakes had helped his political opponents. Partly due to this he seldom bothered to remove CIA briefing papers from their envelopes. Instead he relied on one powerful foreign policy aide to read everything and tell him what he needed to know.

No, this isn’t a description of the Donald Trump transition. The president-elect at issue here was Richard Nixon.

Mr. Nixon loathed the Ivy League types who then dominated the CIA. He felt their overestimation of Soviet missiles strength had boosted John F. Kennedy to victory in the 1960 election. So he ignored the CIA and turned to Henry Kissinger for a daily summary of world events.

What this shows is that Trump’s not the only incoming president at odds with US intelligence. Other newly elected US chief executives have had rocky beginnings with the agencies designed to keep them informed.

Nixon’s case was the worst, by far – it’s possible he never read a single CIA-produced President’s Daily Brief. But President Kennedy felt blindsided by the failed CIA-led Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, which took place a few months after he took office. Lyndon Johnson resented the CIA’s negative (and accurate) assessments of the situation in Vietnam. Gerald Ford was disturbed by accounts of CIA dirty tricks and human rights abuses revealed while he was in office.

In the end, however, almost all presidents have come to terms with and benefited from intelligence agency information flow. In part that’s because they all eventually face a global crisis where they need to know as much as possible, fast. In part that’s because the CIA and its fellows focus on making the relationship work. They see the president as their First Customer and know that POTUS can determine the extent of their influence on US national security.

“The Central Intelligence Agency is more of a presidential service organization than perhaps any other component of the US government,” wrote former CIA Inspector General John Helgerson in “Getting to Know the President,” a lengthy agency study of the introduction to intelligence of chief executives through George W. Bush.

Reference to Nazis

That said, the current situation is certainly unusual in many aspects. The conclusion of US intelligence that Russia hacked Democratic Party emails and distributed the information with an eye to boosting Trump is explosive and has important national security and political implications.

President-elect Trump, in his press conference last week, has now admitted he believes Russia was behind the email hack. But he has also generally attacked the competence and the US intelligence hierarchy. He’s mocked it for its mistaken conclusion that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction prior to the 2003 US invasion. He’s accused CIA Director John Brennan of leaking to the media the dossier of alleged scandalous Trump personal information. He’s implicitly compared his situation to living in “Nazi Germany”.

Mr. Brennan, who is retiring this week, noted in a Monday interview with the Wall Street Journal that the unsubstantiated dossier in question was not intelligence information and has been circulating in media organizations for many months. He denied leaking the material to media outlets and took great umbrage at Trump’s Nazi reference.

“I found that to be very repugnant, and I will forever stand up for the integrity and patriotism of my officers who have done much over the years to sacrifice for their fellow citizens,” said Brennan.

In the end, Trump’s slaps at the CIA and other intel agencies will come back to haunt him, according to Daniel Benjamin, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and former State Department coordinator for counter-terrorism in the Obama administration.

The words will demoralize the CIA rank-and-file while causing top officials to start looking around for other work, according to Mr. Benjamin. They unnecessarily devalue an important asset. If at some point Trump wants to take action in a foreign nation in part due to intelligence information, how can he now explain that to the public? He can’t very well promote the conclusions of agencies he’s now trashed, writes Benjamin in a Brookings analysis.

Analysts will feel justified leaking information. And no intelligence analyst or operative will want to undertake a difficult or dangerous job in the current political climate, charges Benjamin.

“It is an iron law of bureaucracy that no agency will knock itself out for a leader it deems capricious, especially one who cannot be relied on to defend his own if something goes wrong,” he writes.

Law of survival

But another iron law of bureaucracy is survival. It is also entirely possible that the US intelligence agencies will study Trump to see how they can get onto his good side.

One thing that may help in that regard is Trump’s pick for the new CIA chief, Rep. Mike Pompeo (R) of Kansas. A West Point graduate and former Army tank commander, Representative Pompeo is widely regarded on Capitol Hill as smart and competent, though at times partisan. Pompeo glided smoothly through his confirmation hearing last week. He denied that the CIA produces politicized intelligence and said he was sure Trump would come to value its expertise.

“I am confident that the Central Intelligence Agency will play a role for this administration [that] as it has for every previous administration, providing powerful intelligence that shapes policy and decisionmaking,” he said.

Perhaps Trump simply needs time to understand what the CIA and other agencies do. That has been the case for every president since the CIA’s founding in the wake of World War II.

“Presidents differ more widely in their previous knowledge and experience of intelligence than in their grasp of most other areas of government,” wrote Mr. Helgerson in his CIA study.

Dwight Eisenhower was well-versed in the ways intelligence can inform policy decisions, for instance. But after taking office he had no interest in receiving written information on a regular basis or in periodic face time with a CIA director or other high official. He received intelligence input at the beginning of formal National Security Council meetings.

Kennedy was not impressed with the personal briefings he received from CIA Director Allen Dulles. He found the older man patronizing and felt that he could learn more from reading the newspaper. JFK paid little attention at first to written briefing material. It was only after Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev tore him apart at an early summit that Kennedy began to study his intelligence information.

At one point Lyndon Johnson blithely invited an official White House photographer into a CIA briefing to take pictures. Shocked analysts leapt to cover highly classified maps of Soviet missile sites. But as the Vietnam War ground on LBJ paid more attention to the nature and detail of intelligence reports.

“Johnson – like other presidents – [became] a closer reader of the daily products as he became increasingly enmeshed in foreign policy matters,” wrote Helgerson.

Hostile Nixon 

But for sheer animosity toward intelligence Nixon was the White House champ. Nixon was a “hostile audience” for CIA material, said David Robarge, chief historian at the CIA, at a conference last August.

It’s possible Nixon never read any of the Presidential Daily Briefs laboriously compiled by CIA analysts during his time in office. Instead he relied upon a three- or four-page report written by White House aides in the Situation Room under the direction of National Security Advisor (later Secretary of State) Henry Kissinger.

Will Trump duplicate this system, with Trump’s incoming national security adviser, retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, playing the role of Kissinger? A former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, General Flynn has been highly critical in the past of the CIA and other arms of US intelligence.

Perhaps. It’s just as likely the relationship between the president and his intel team will go in some other direction. In studying how chief executives and the CIA worked together, Helgerson noted that some liked written material, some liked videos, some wanted generalities (Ronald Reagan) and some asked so many questions the briefings took extra time (Jimmy Carter, George W. Bush).

“Both briefers and former presidents are agreed on the simple but important fact that each president is different,” Helgerson wrote.