America’s National Security Agencies Under Trump: Lessons from the Nixon Administration


The president-elect believed he knew enough about the world and did not make time for intelligence briefings. CIA briefers were left hanging around in the lobby of a Manhattan skyscraper, looking for one of the president-elect’s aides to talk to in the hope that something of what they said or wrote would reach the boss upstairs. If the president-elect’s time was on short supply, his confidence in the CIA was non-existent. The president-elect was convinced that those “clowns out there at Langley” were out to get him, robbing him of his election. The CIA braced for a difficult relationship with the incoming administration, but no one foresaw just how difficult it was going to be.

The president-elect in question is not Donald Trump but Richard Nixon, the only president whose relationship with parts of the intelligence community began as inauspiciously as Donald Trump’s has. Even though the first few pages of the story of their relationship with the CIA are eerily similar, the ending need not be. To avoid repeating the fate of Nixon and of the CIA under his control, both Trump’s transition team and the intelligence community should look back at the Nixon era.

Richard Nixon came into office with nothing but disdain and mistrust for the CIA, absurdly convinced that the agency was responsible for his loss to John F. Kennedy in 1960 because they refused to debunk the missile-gap myth. Just days into his presidency, he dared the CIA to prove its worth and loyalty to him, ordering it to document foreign direction of anti-war protesters. The CIA’s director, Richard Helms, reluctantly complied, making a decision that almost destroyed the agency when it was revealed in late 1974. Helms knew that the CIA’s charter prohibited it from operating at home, but it had been conducting a nearly identical investigation for President Lyndon B. Johnson in the vain attempt to convince him that protests had no connection to a foreign power. Months later, Nixon pressured the CIA to modify its estimates of Soviet nuclear capabilities. Helms complied once more, outraging his analysts but thinking it was the only way to preserve some influence with the White House. He managed to keep his seat at the table but did not earn much credit with Nixon, who continued to make improper requests while describing the CIA as “not worth a damn” and filled with “clowns” whose budget had to be cut in half. It took Helms three years and the greatest scandal in American history to draw the line. When the White House asked him to cover up the Watergate burglars, Helms refused. Had he done otherwise, he argued, “the agency’s credibility would have been ruined forever.” He was right, but Nixon promptly seized the opportunity and fired him .

Nixon’s relationship with other parts of the intelligence community were a lot cozier but hardly any healthier. In one of the many long talks they had early in 1969, J. Edgar Hoover told Nixon that the FBI had been conducting, without a search warrant, black-bag jobs, break-ins, and bugging opponents for every president since Franklin Roosevelt. It was now Nixon’s turn to use the FBI as its secret political arm. Hoover ’s wasn’t just talk. He wiretapped White House aides suspected of leaks, aided Nixon’s efforts to reshape the Supreme Court in a conservative direction, expanded the FBI’s foreign liaison program to provide some of the foreign intelligence that Nixon did not trust the CIA to collect, and gave Nixon thousands of reports on his political opponents.

Yet, Hoover balked at the infamous Huston Plan and its widespread surveillance of the American public, largely because Nixon was asking him to perform clearly illegal activities without any political cover whatsoever. He knew that his position as director would have been at risk in case of exposure, and no amount of pressure from the White House could move him. Nixon was furious. In the fall of 1971, he told his attorney general that Hoover “oughta resign” but he could not force him to do so. He wanted “to avoid the situation where [Hoover] can leave with a blast.” He continued, “We may have on our hands here a man who will pull down the temple with him, including me.” Hoover died too early to pull down the temple, but one of his closest aides, Douglas Felt, finished the job by leaking the FBI’s dirty secrets to The Washington Post.

This story is well known, but the Nixon-admirers in the Trump administration, starting with the president himself, seem to have forgotten its lessons. The first lessons are for Trump himself. In his dealings with his intelligence agencies, Nixon dug his own political grave. The more he ordered his intelligence agencies to commit improper activities, the more it gave them the power to blackmail the presidency. When he went outside the established intelligence agencies — such as with “the plumbers” who bungled up most of their assigned tasks, including Watergate —Nixon created a Frankenstein monster he soon lost control of. Further, he found a lot less competence than what he would have found using proper institutional channels.

For the intelligence community, the main lesson is that acquiescing to a president’s request to politicize its estimates may buy short-term access but not long-term influence. Even in the best of times, intelligence agencies have to walk a fine line. They have to be close enough to the world of politics in order to receive guidance and be responsive to policymakers’ needs but not too close lest they lose their objectivity and neutrality. They have to be in the world of politics without being of the world of politics. The cost of being too far from politics is irrelevance and loss of access. In the coming Trump administration, that would mean letting go unchallenged what Trump’s conspiracy-minded advisers will whisper in the ears of a president already inclined toward conspiracy theories. The cost of being too close to politics is partisanship and the loss of credibility. The CIA went down that route during the Bush administration and has yet to recover.

To find the balance between the two evils of irrelevance and partisanship, the intelligence community has to choose among two opposite options. First, it could do what comes natural to all intelligence agencies: Lay low, avoid speaking in public, and reveal as little as possible about what it is doing. By staying away from the public sphere, the intelligence community may convince the Trump administration that it does not have a political agenda. Delivering unique, timely, and accurate products, it would show its worth to the administration, increasingly gaining credibility and access.

This would be an optimal outcome, but also a highly unlikely one, as it would require Trump and his advisers to be different people from what they have shown themselves to be so far. First and foremost, they would have to be more willing to accept contrary information. For instance, Trump and his transition team ridiculed the competence of the intelligence community when it said that Russia had covertly interfered in the U.S. presidential election to Trump’s benefit. As another example, Trump said he will not refrain from interfering in FBI criminal investigative matters and will quiz the FBI director about his handling of the investigation on Hillary Clinton’s emails before deciding whether to dismiss him. His choice for national security advisor, Lt. Gen. (ret.) Michael Flynn, reportedly began his tenure at the Defense Intelligence Agency by telling his colleagues that he was always right and that the way to know if they were right was to check if their opinions coincided with his.

The opposite option is for the intelligence community to be as forthcoming with the public as possible, even when the political consequences will be severe. When dragged into a public controversy, the intelligence community should stick to the facts, even when as is generally the case in the world of intelligence, the information it has is partial and full of uncertainties. The intelligence community should also expand the list of the recipients of its products and use congressional testimony as opportunities to be as candid as possible. Within the limits that secrecy allows, minority and majority Congressional leaders should know in advance where the different agencies of the intelligence community stand before the administration has made a major national security decision. This will make it much harder for the Trump Administration to manipulate intelligence findings and will force it to listen in order not to know less than other political leaders in Washington. Lastly, soon-to-retire Director of National Intelligence James Clapper should explain publicly, in writing, and in the clearest possible terms what it can and cannot do in its relationship to the political leadership before he leaves his post.

The result will be an intelligence community that is frequently in the public eye and that works to raise the level of the debate in Washington. The walls of the CIA in Langley read “And Ye Shall Know the Truth and the Truth Shall Make You Free.” It is by speaking more of the truth in public that the intelligence community will keep itself above politics and all of us free.


Matteo Faini is a Max Weber Fellow in the European University Institute in Florence. He obtained a PhD from Princeton University’s Politics Department with a dissertation on the relationship between policy-makers and intelligence agencies. His articles on intelligence have appeared on Intelligence and National Security and the Journal of Intelligence History.

Image: National Archives & Records Administration