American Presidents and Their Spies: from Washington to Trump

George Washington, America’s first president, was the last one to enjoy an untroubled relationship with his rudimentary intelligence community. As the commanding general in the war against the British, General Washington had used a good number of spies and informers. They contributed to his eventual triumph and, also on a few occasions, saved his life. Once he became president, Washington and almost all of his successors until Franklin D. Roosevelt governed the United States as an open country without an intelligence gathering institution. They viewed spying by an arm of the state as immoral and unworthy of gentlemen. America’s business was business.

It took the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and Adolf Hitler’s declaration of war on the United States to make the U.S. Government to appreciate that accurate and timely intelligence was essential. Therefore, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) was established in June 1942. The Americans were newcomers to the field of clandestine operations and they lacked the patience and experience of other services with long institutional traditions. Consider, for instance, the Soviet Chekists who, having learned from their Tsarist predecessors, designed and ran operations TRUST, MAYAK, SINDIKAT, or CITADEL that are to this day studied and admired for their brilliance in spy schools all over the world. Or take the British MI6 whose officers, such as Tommy “Tar” Robertson, so utterly confused their German adversary with overlapping networks of double and triple agents that the allied landings in Normandy in 1944 achieved the much-needed strategic surprise.

Though not in the same league as the Soviets or the Brits, the OSS was effective against the Nazis. What the Americans lacked in the area of human intelligence (HUMINT), they made up for with boldness, fortitude, and ample resources in the para-military sphere. U.S. teams operated in such “exotic” wartime places as Turkey, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Vietnam, China, the Balkans, or Slovakia—areas far removed from theaters where U.S. Army generals expected to fight.

The lifespan of the OSS turned out to be surprisingly short. President Harry Truman, who led the country into the postwar era, came from the unassuming state of Missouri. He was among those who mocked the OSS as “Oh, So Social,” i.e., a snobbish and pretentious club that recruited mostly among graduates of elite universities. And so, with a flick of his presidential wrist, he abolished the OSS in September 1945, just as the tensions between the East and West started to rise. Although it took him two years, Truman eventually realized that a superpower could not hold its own in a contest with the communist bloc without a professional intelligence organization; the CIA came into existence in July 1947.

As a five-star general, Dwight Eisenhower understood the importance of intelligence when he entered the White House in 1953. He took it for granted that the spooks would give him the most accurate information. This faith was broken in the U-2 incident, the spy plane operated by the CIA, and shot down by the Soviets on 1 May 1960. The U-2 piloted by Gary Powers fell to the ground from over 70,000 feet, and the Agency felt certain that neither the pilot nor the super-secret cameras and other electronic equipment could have fallen in the Russians’ hands. The CIA encouraged Eisenhower to claim that, provided that the wreckage was in fact American, it would have been a NASA weather plane that got lost and was missing. It was a lie, and Nikita Khrushchev easily proved it when it transpired that the pilot and much of the specialized equipment on board of the U-2 survived. It was a humiliating culmination of Eisenhower’s long public career, and the president never forgave his spies for it.

As John F. Kennedy prepared to take the presidential oath in January 1961, he learned that the CIA had been training a group of Cuban volunteers who were ready to land in Cuba and liberate it from the increasingly totalitarian Fidel Castro. The young president was skeptical regarding the operation’s chances of success. But he allowed it to proceed, although he withheld, literally at the last moment, US air cover for the troops coming ashore at the Bay of Pigs. Without the crucial support from the Air Force, the Cuban volunteers were massacred or taken prisoner. The humiliated president fired Allen Dulles from the top CIA post and developed a deep distrust of the intelligence community. In October 1962, when he faced his final serious test in office, the Cuban missile crisis, he was so skeptical of his spooks that he negotiated the final settlement with Khrushchev behind their back and, to a considerable extent, through informal channels.

Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963, handed the presidency to Lyndon B. Johnson at a time when the Vietnam conflict was escalating. LBJ was an experienced veteran of American politics and he quickly noticed that while the CIA’s and Pentagon’s reports from South East Asia were mostly encouraging, the situation on the ground was bleak. Johnson decided that he was not getting accurate information from the CIA. He dispatched his own advisors to Vietnam, civilians with neither military nor intelligence training, with orders to report their first-hand impressions directly to the president. It was to some extent their reports that led to Johnson’s decision not to seek reelection in 1968.

Richard Nixon’s relationship with the Intelligence Community was notoriously fraught with tensions. The president, strongly influenced by Henry Kissinger, thought the Agency to be a nest of liberals who secretly supported his domestic critics. He doubted the CIA’s utility as an intelligence gathering and analytical institution. When the Watergate affair broke out, the president illegally tried to use the Agency to cover up the scandal. This having failed, Nixon fired its director, Richard Helms, a decorated OSS officer, and replaced him with James Schlesinger, whom some thought to be more loyal to the White House than to the CIA’s mission. Various officers complained that Schlesinger misrepresented their analyses of the Vietnam war to serve the political needs of the president.

Even Jimmy Carter did not have a flawless relationship with his spies. Admiral Stansfield Turner, whom he chose to take over as the new CIA director in 1977, was an eccentric choice. To start with, he did not believe in America’s ability to compete with the Soviet adversary in the crucial field of gathering intelligence from human sources. He therefore fired 820 seasoned CIA officers from the clandestine branch that specialized in recruiting and running agents abroad and he ordered that all activities by American intelligence officers under diplomatic cover cease in such crucial areas as the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. This made Turner wildly unpopular among CIA officers, who automatically blamed not only their boss, Turner, but also the president. The Iranian hostage crisis (November 1979-January 1981) revealed America’s desperate weakness in the HUMINT sphere: when Colonel Charlie Beckwith and other U.S. Army personnel planning the (ultimately failed) attempt to rescue the American diplomats held in Teheran had inquired how many assets the CIA had in Iran, the incredible answer was—not a single one.

Ronald Reagan’s director of the CIA, William Casey, was initially welcomed by many Agency professionals as a breath of fresh air. He and the president firmly believed in the need to rebuild and reinvigorate U.S. Intelligence. NATO naval exercises in the Barents Sea in 1981 successfully employed innovative deception and concealment measures and Operation ABLE ARCHER two years later showed that the Soviet Union might not be such a powerful adversary after all. Reagan and Casey successfully used CIA channels in support of the Afghan anti-Soviet guerrillas. They also maintained strong ties between the White House and the Vatican under John Paul II. (This, like the U.S. support for the Afghans, had been initiated by the Carter administration.)

The CIA under orders directly from Reagan targeted the Communist oppressors of Poland by Operation QRHELPFUL. It weakened the junta of Wojciech Jaruzelski, strengthened Polish civil society, and prepared for the peaceful transition to the first post-Communist government in Eastern Europe. The now retired CIA officer who was in charge of the Polish mission pointed out that Operation Cyclon (U.S. support for the anti-Soviet guerrillas in Afghanistan) cost $20 billion and QRHELPFUL cost $20 million. Yet, in Afghanistan the Soviet Union lost a war but in Poland it lost its empire.

But even Reagan’s relationship with the Intelligence Community turned sour when the Iran-Contra Affair exploded in 1985. Senior administration officials, working in concert with American spooks, embarked on a scheme to gain freedom for U.S. hostages held in the Middle East by selling weapons to the Khomeini regime in Iran, and then using the proceeds to fund the anti-communist Contras in Nicaragua, a measure explicitly banned by an act of Congress. Reagan survived but just barely, and the scandal soiled what could have been a triumphant ending to his presidency.

George H. W. Bush took over as the Cold War was fading away and the Soviet bloc started to dissolve. It briefly seemed that a whole new world—stable and perhaps even prosperous—was about to replace centuries of wars and deprivations. Without acknowledging its insecurity in public, the Intelligence Community worried about its mission in this new environment, especially when its Soviet adversary, the KGB, was banned and ordered dissolved in the aftermath of the failed August 1981 coup d’état in Moscow.

Such concerns proved to be premature for two reasons. First, Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 shattered the hopeful illusion that the peaceful end of the Cold War rendered use of force in international relations obsolete. Second, the wily KGB never went away. It changed its name, modernized, expanded, and reemerged, flush with billions from the “privatized” assets of the Soviet Union. The Chekists of old thought of themselves as fighters for a Russia-dominated communist future. Their successors, starting in the early 1990s, see themselves as advancing the national interests of Russia. The difference between the two is minimal, especially when one considers that faith in communism had faded away when Nikita Khrushchev was overthrown in 1964.

The instability of the Middle East was the main focus of Bill Clinton. It became the only focus under his successor, George W. Bush, in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in New York City and elsewhere on 9/11. The new president harmed the reputation of American Intelligence when he allowed the neo-conservative hawks in his administration to pressure the CIA leadership to produce tainted “intelligence” that was used to justify the invasion of Iraq. Equally destructive was Bush’s decision to detain persons suspected of terrorist activities in Guantanamo, Cuba, i.e., outside the jurisdiction of the U.S. legal system. Many proved to be innocent and several had been tortured. Such activities are illegal, profoundly un-American and antithetical to the values of intelligence officers who understand their jobs to involve gathering of accurate information for the benefit of U.S. Government officials.

The immediate post-9/11 realm of U.S. Intelligence was extremely tense. There was reason to fear that the terrorist attacks that had just taken place were but the first wave of other schemes in the making. It produced a sense that in the struggle with terrorists, all measures were allowed since they, like pirates, have voluntarily placed themselves outside the law, and thus deprived themselves of its protection. This argument has been used to explain why the Bush administration countenanced the use of such odious measures as torture, which had been hitherto associated with practices by totalitarian monsters. But the stability of a country’s legal system is best tested in a crisis, when much is at stake and the public is willing to accept the use of measures that supposedly achieve results, even if they are illegal. It is a truth that needs to be acknowledged that the legacy of Guantanamo, waterboarding, sleep and sensory deprivation against detainees who had no recourse to U.S. courts has diminished America’s standing as a beacon of freedom, democracy, and the rule of law. Justly or not, this has had an impact on how U.S. Intelligence agencies are now perceived around the world.

President Donald Trump entered the White House as a self-proclaimed admirer of Russia and a denigrator of U.S. Intelligence. He was a critic not of Guantanamo, torture, and other aspects that deserved condemnation, but of the Intelligence Community’s evidence that Russia had mounted an ambitious effort to bring about his victory in the U.S. elections in 2016.

This became painfully obvious in Trump’s 2018 Helsinki summit with Vladimir Putin. The encounter took place shortly after Special Counsel Robert Mueller had formally indicted 12 Russian military intelligence officers for hacking the campaign of Hillary Clinton, Trump’s rival. Many believed that was reason enough to cancel the event. Yet, it took place as planned. Putin and Trump, having met for two hours without any witnesses, emerged to face the press. Trump noted that “his people,” such as Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Dan Coats, had concluded that Russia had tried to tip the scale of the last presidential election in his favor. The president sounded skeptical, and a journalist challenged him: “Every US intelligence agency has concluded that Russia did [interfere in the election on Trump’s behalf]. My first question to you, sir, is who do you believe?” “President Putin says,” Trump replied, “it’s not Russia. I don’t see any reason why it would be.”

Even the president’s allies were outraged. U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan warned that Russia and Putin were “hostile to our most basic values and ideals.” Senator John McCain of Arizona found Trump’s performance in Helsinki to be “disgraceful.” He added that no “prior president has ever abased himself more abjectly before a tyrant.” Even Senator Lindsey Graham, Trump’s ally, lamented that the president had missed an opportunity “to firmly hold Russia accountable for the meddling in the U.S. elections of 2016.” DNI Coats, a former republican senator from Indiana, stressed that all U.S. special services agreed that Russia was behind “ongoing, pervasive attempts” to weaken the American democratic system.

Trump’s first choice for the post of CIA director was Mike Pompeo, a highly intelligent operator but without an ethical anchor. Sadly, according to Agency insiders, the new director appeared to be uninterested in the business of intelligence but was fully focused on avoiding the vicious temper of his boss in the White House. When Pompeo moved out to take over the Department of State, Trump nominated Gina Haspel to be the next director of the CIA. It sent shock waves through the Intelligence Community. As an officer, Haspel had supervised a covert site in Thailand where at least two suspects were waterboarded. She also shared responsibility for ordering the destruction of detainee interrogation videotapes that could have been used as evidence in U.S. courts. Senator McCain, who was tortured as an American prisoner-of-war by the Vietnamese communists, opposed her nomination, as did Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont who had warned his colleagues in the Senate before the vote that it was going to be a “referendum on torture.” The Republican majority approved Haspel’s nomination anyway.

This proved to be just a beginning of the president’s assault on the intelligence community. Trump fired DNI Coats, once a pillar of the Republican Party establishment, and according to many “the last adult in the Trump administration.” He then dismissed Acting DNI Joe Maguire who was—however indirectly—involved in Trump’s impeachment by Congress. He was replaced with Richard Grenell, a journalist and a Trumpian cheerleader with no experience in the field of intelligence or national security. When Grenell took over the post of DNI, he sacked Andrew Hallman, Maguire’s deputy and a national security professional. John Brennen, the former director of CIA, observed that Trump’s purge of the Intelligence Community’s leadership amounted to “virtual decapitation.” From the moment he assumed presidency, Donald Trump has treated American clandestine services as his enemy. More than three years later, this has not changed.


Spying is an old art that dates back to the pre-Biblical days. Traditionally, secret agents lived under a cover of darkness so that their political masters could maintain the illusion that they bore no responsibility for their spies’ operations . “Though ready enough to profit by the activities of obscure agents of whom they had never heard,” wrote W. Somerset Maugham, “they shut their eyes to dirty work so that they could put their clean hands on their hearts and congratulate themselves that they had never done anything that was unbecoming of men of honor.”

Trump has turned the moral dichotomy between the clean politician and the dirty spy upside down. In the United States, the rank and file of the Intelligence Community—though not the political appointees chosen by the White House—abide by a moral code that is superior to the values guiding the president. The spies are asked not to inform, but on the contrary, to “shut their eyes to dirty work”—by their commander-in-chief, Mr. Donald Trump.


Igor Lukes

University Professor
Professor of History
& International Relations
Pardee School of Global Studies
Boston University

published: 22. 5. 2020

Igor Lukeš

Igor Lukeš

Univerzitní profesor / Autor je univerzitním profesorem a profesorem historie a mezinárodních vztahů na Pardee School of Global Studies, Boston University.