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The early history of secret intelligence in the United States is closely interwoven with the career of the first president. In 1983, two centuries after Britain recognized American independence, the head of the intelligence community, William Casey, told a Senate committee, "I claim that my first predecessor as Director of Central Intelligence was . . . George Washington, who appointed himself." Washington, declared Ronald Reagan, also began the "proud tradition" of American codebreaking. The victory of the United States in the Revolutionary War was hastened by a series of successful covert operations. The next thirty presidents, however, rarely showed much enthusiasm for intelligence. Not till the Cold War did any of Washington's successors rival his flair for intelligence and covert action.
Despite the experience of the Revolutionary War, the United States was the last major power to acquire either a professional foreign intelligence service or a codebreaking agency. Though wars and other crises intermittently involved nineteenth- and early twentieth-century presidents in intelligence activities, there was no American intelligence community until the Second World War. Before the 1940s, because of its relative isolation and self-sufficiency, the United States had less need of foreign intelligence than the great powers of Europe. During the one and a half centuries between Washington and the Second World War, however, a series of precedents were set that profoundly affected the later development of the intelligence community. The president responsible for the most important precedents was, perhaps surprisingly, WoodrowWilson, better known as the champion of "open diplomacy." At the outbreak of the First World War in Europe, Wilson was deeply ignorant and suspicious of intelligence operations. Once the United States entered the war, however, the station chief of British intelligence in the United States won Wilson's confidence to a greater degree than his own secretary of state. The origins of the "special relationship" with British intelligence are to be found in Wilson's presidency.
Wilson's assistant secretary of the navy, Franklin Roosevelt, was deeply impressed by what he believed was Britain's "wonderful intelligence service." No existing study of FDR's foreign policy grasps the importance of his admiration for British intelligence during the First World War in explaining his later willingness as president to begin collaboration with it well before Pearl Harbor. The United States remained the junior partner in the wartime Anglo-American intelligence alliance. During the first decade of the Cold War, however, America assumed the intelligence, as well as the military, leadership of the Western world.
Despite the vast increase in the production of classified information since the outbreak of the Second World War, secret intelligence accounts for only a fraction of the flood of information that pours into the White House every day. All postwar presidents, however, have been influenced--often more than they have realized--by what the intelligence community tells them. The first document that most have read each morning has been an overnight intelligence summary from the Central Intelligence Agency. Had Franklin Roosevelt and his successors retained the feeble and fragmented foreign intelligence systems of the First World War and the interwar years, the history of both the Second World War and the Cold War would have been quite different.
Since the 1950s the American intelligence community, despite its late beginnings, has been the most technically advanced in the world. The more sophisticated it has become, the higher presidential expectations have risen. According to Robert M. Gates, the director of central intelligence from 1991 to 1993:
. . . Presidents expect that, for what they spend on intelligence, the product should be able to predict coups, upheavals, riots, intentions, military moves, and the like with accuracy. . . . Presidents and their national security teams usually are ill-informed about intelligence capabilities; therefore they often have unrealistic expectations of what intelligence can do for them, especially when they hear about the genuinely extraordinary capabilities of U.S. intelligence for collecting and processing information.
All postwar presidents have used the CIA for covert action as well as for intelligence collection and analysis. Almost all have developed exaggerated notions of what it can--or should--achieve. Some of the lowest points in the modern history of the presidency--the Bay of Pigs, Watergate, Iran-Contra--have arisen from grotesque misjudgments about the role of covert action. The key to the main U.S. intelligence failures and successes is to be found as frequently in the Oval Office as in the performance of the intelligence agencies. It is sometimes more difficult to make effective use of good intelligence than to collect it in the first place.
How presidents use intelligence is largely a matter of temperament and experience. The chapters that follow seek to show the extent to which the fortunes of the intelligence community have been influenced by the personalities, as well as the policies, of the presidents they have served. In a high-tech world, the human factor has remained crucially important. The character of the president helps to determine not merely how much interest, but also what sort of interest, he takes in intelligence. Though Franklin Roosevelt paid far more attention to intelligence than most of his predecessors, it was a curiously lopsided attention. Even before Pearl Harbor, by far the most important intelligence available to him came from the codebreakers. Roosevelt's temperament, however, led him to take a much keener interest in spies and covert operations than in cryptanalysis. Had he shared Winston Churchill's passion for, and understanding of, signals intelligence (SIGINT), the outcome of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor might have been very different. The far more successful use of SIGINT after Pearl Harbor helped to shorten the Second World War.
FDR's sudden death in April 1945 changed the history of the intelligence community. Had he lived, it is unlikely that he would have closed down the wartime foreign intelligence agency, OSS, before establishing a peacetime replacement. His successor, Harry Truman, did. As well as being generally less interested in intelligence than Roosevelt, Truman had a different set of intelligence priorities. Though Truman took some time to adjust to the idea of peacetime espionage, he was quickly impressed by the SIGINT successes that hastened victory over Germany and Japan. Truman's biographers fail to mention that in September 1945, in addition to abolishing OSS, he approved the continuation of peacetime SIGINT in collaboration with the British. This collaboration led to an unprecedented peacetime Anglo-American intelligence alliance that still remains the most special part of a perhaps fading special relationship.
The election of Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952 was a landmark in intelligence history. While Truman had arrived in the White House almost totally ignorant of intelligence, Ike's experience as Allied commander in chief in Europe during the Second World War had given him a far better grasp of SIGINT and imagery intelligence (IMINT) than any previous president. The IMINT revolution of the 1950s, which was to change the history of the Cold War, owed much to Eisenhower's personal backing for the development of spy planes and satellites. The Second World War, however, had distorted Eisenhower's understanding of the peacetime role of human-source intelligence (HUMINT). Influenced by memories of wartime operations behind enemy lines and support for resistance movements, Eisenhower made covert action by the CIA a major part of his foreign policy. Though Truman had authorized more covert action than he later liked to admit, he would never have approved Eisenhower's secret schemes to overthrow regimes in Iran, Guatemala, Indonesia, Cuba, and elsewhere.
John F. Kennedy's brief presidency witnessed both the most spectacular American intelligence failure and the most striking intelligence success of the Cold War. His willingness to approve the Cuban operation that ended in fiasco at the Bay of Pigs in April 1961 was due, in part at least, to his inexperience with intelligence and covert action. Kennedy, however, learned quickly on the job. Only eighteen months later, skillful use of good intelligence by the president and his advisers helped to resolve the Cuban missile crisis--the single most dangerous moment since the Second World War. Kennedy's assassination a year later was a disaster for the CIA. His successor, Lyndon Johnson, absurdly suspected the agency of having plotted to make sure he lost the Democratic nomination to Kennedy in 1960. John McCone, a remarkably able director of central intelligence, eventually resigned because of his inability to gain the president's ear. Kennedy would surely not have been as slow as LBJ to come to terms with gloomy CIA estimates on the Vietnam War.
Posted April 29, 2009
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