Getting To Know the President

CIA Briefings of
Presidential Candidates

This is an important and original book. How world leaders understand or misunderstand, use or fail to use, the intelligence available to them is an essential but still under-researched aspect both of modern government and of international relations. The making of the American intelligence community has transformed the presidency of the United States. Before the First World War, the idea that the United States might need a foreign intelligence service simply did not occur to most Americans or to their presidents. After the war, Woodrow Wilson publicly poked fun at his own pre-war innocence: "Let me testify to this, my fellow citizens, I not only did not know it until we got into this war, but I did not believe it when I was told that it was true, that Germany was not the only country that maintained a secret service!" Wilson could scarcely have imagined that, less than half a century later, the United States would be an intelligence superpower. Though the intelligence nowadays available to the President is, like all human knowledge, incomplete and fallible, it probably exceeds--at least in quantity--that available to any other world leader past or present.

The starting point for the study of relations between presidents and their intelligence communities since the Second World War are the briefings they receive from the CIA before their inauguration. John L. Helgerson is well equipped to write this path-breaking study of these briefings. A political scientist before joining the CIA, he served as the Agency's Deputy Director for Intelligence during the Bush administration and was head of the team that briefed Bill Clinton in Little Rock after the 1992 election. In addition to having access to classified files, Mr. Helgerson has interviewed previous Agency briefers and all surviving former Presidents.

Both briefers and former Presidents are agreed on the simple but important fact that each President is different. Presidents differ more widely in their previous knowledge and experience of intelligence than in their grasp of most other areas of government. Harry Truman entered the Oval Office in April 1945 almost wholly ignorant of intelligence matters. His determination that no future president should take office as uninformed as he had been is partly responsible for the intelligence briefing offered to all presidential candidates since 1952. Unlike Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower did not need to be persuaded of the importance of intelligence. Ike was the first President since George Washington already experienced in the use of intelligence when he took the oath of office. He wrote after the Second World War that "intelligence had been of priceless value to me...and, in no small way, contributed to the speed with which the enemy was routed and eventually forced to surrender."

Recent presidents have varied almost as greatly in their experience of intelligence as Truman and Eisenhower. Agency briefers found Presidents Reagan and Bush, in Mr. Helgerson's words, "virtual polar opposites." Despite Ronald Reagan's membership in 1975 of the Rockefeller Commission on CIA activities within the United States, he had no previous experience as an intelligence consumer and felt the need for generality. Bush, by contrast, was the first former Director of Central Intelligence, with the arguable exception of George Washington, to be elected president. He had a closer working relationship than any previous president with the CIA. Like Reagan, President Clinton had no previous experience as an intelligence consumer.

Mr. Helgerson provides the first detailed account of the way in which Agency briefers have attempted, with varying success, to adapt briefings to the differing experience, priorities, and working patterns of successive presidents. One of the earliest changes in the new administration is usually the format of the President's Daily Brief, probably the world's smallest circulation, most highly classified, and--in some respects--best informed daily newspaper. Some presidents, it appears, like it to include more humor than others. On average, about 60 percent of the items covered in the President's Daily Brief do not appear in the press at all, even in unclassified form.

The most important lesson of this book is that, if the CIA is to provide effective intelligence support to policymakers, there is no substitute for direct access to the President. There is the implied lesson also that, if presidents are to make the best use of the CIA, they need to make clear to the Agency at regular intervals what intelligence they do and do not want. As a result of his own experience as DCI, Bush plainly took this lesson to heart. Some presidents, however, have provided little feedback.

Most good books leave the reader wanting more. Getting To Know the President is no exception. As well as holding the interest of his readers, Mr. Helgerson will also increase their curiosity. What, for example, were the exotic and closely-held methods or the sensitive human-source and technical collection programs on which DCI George Bush briefed President-elect Jimmy Carter? Just as it is reasonable for readers to ask questions such as these, so it is also reasonable on some occasions for intelligence agencies to avoid precise replies in order to protect their sources and methods.

There is an inevitable tension between the curiosity of readers and scholars on the one hand and the security-consciousness of intelligence agencies on the other. Historians and intelligence officers are unlikely ever to reach complete agreement on how much of the past record can be declassified without compromising current operations. In recent years, however, the CIA Center for the Study of Intelligence has gone further than most of the world's major intelligence agencies in opening up some of its records to historical research, publishing important volumes of documents on subjects such as the Truman administration, the Cuban missile crisis, Soviet estimates, and spy satellites. All historians will hope that these documents will be followed by many more.

It is also to be hoped that Getting To Know the President will set a precedent for intelligence agencies in other countries. Until similar volumes are available on the briefing of, among others, British prime ministers, German chancellors, French and Russian presidents, and leading Asian statesmen, the use made of intelligence by world leaders will continue to be a major gap in our understanding of both modern government and international relations.

Christopher Andrew
Corpus Christi College

Central Intelligence Agency
CIA Briefings of Presidential Candidates
22 May 1996