Presidential transitions are perilous times. One tradition of creating continuity is for commanders-in-chief in waiting to be briefed by the Central Intelligence Agency. Some presidents-elect can’t get enough of the top-secret stuff. Some half-listen as they gear up in great haste to take office.
Until now, none has disdained the secret briefs, denigrated the CIA, and declared, in the words of Donald J Trump, “I’m, like, a smart person” – declining to hear almost everything and anything the spies have to say.
This willful ignorance has no real precedent. It may well be that Trump really doesn’t want to know about Russia’s hacking the 2016 election, an epochal event that he doesn’t believe actually happened. He may think he that he doesn’t need to know more about North Korea’s nukes, Syria’s army and the fall of Aleppo, or the correlation of forces in the Middle East. He may spend the next five weeks – or the next four years – saying, in effect, my mind’s made up, don’t confuse me with facts.
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But he could learn a lot by reading up about the CIA’s opening the kingdom of secrets for prospective presidents over the past 40 years.
In 1976, the Director of Central Intelligence – George H W Bush – prepared to fly down to Plains, Georgia, to brief Jimmy Carter. Getting there was half the problem for the world’s premier intelligence service. The CIA’s Gulfstream jet couldn’t make a landing on the sod airstrip in Plains. A quick call to the Pentagon gleaned the information that Bush would have to helicopter in to Peterson Field, but the CIA’s navigators couldn’t find it on the map. They called down to Plains. They were directed to Peterson’s field – a peanut farmer’s plot on the edge of town.
What Bush gave Carter wasn’t brief. It was a six-hour tour of the world – the Soviet Union, China, Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Egypt, Iraq and more. Carter wanted to know about America’s strategic nuclear arsenal and its spy satellites. He sought a day-long follow-up. Eight CIA experts joined Bush and Carter in Plains two weeks later for a deeper dive. And in a final meeting on November 19, 1976, Bush revealed two really deep secrets. One was that a number of foreign leaders, including King Hussein of Jordan, were on the CIA’s payroll. The other was that Bush wanted to stay on at the CIA. “If I had agreed to that,” Carter said years later, “he never would have become president.”
A very different scene unfolded when the CIA’s briefers met Ronald Reagan at Wexford, a sumptuous Virginia estate once owned by John and Jackie Kennedy, in 1980. Reagan gave them an hour: 15 minutes on Saddam Hussein, 15 minutes on the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, 15 minutes on the Saudis, and 15 minutes on Iran. Members of Reagan’s entourage ran in and out of the room like characters in a screwball comedy. The hour went by quickly.
Then, in late 1988 and early 1989, came Bush 41’s turn to be briefed. He had loved his year as director of Central Intelligence – the CIA must have seemed to him like his Yale fraternity, Skull and Bones, but with a billion-dollar budget. Before and after his inauguration, he soaked up daily briefs and wanted more – the raw intelligence underlying them, direct reports from CIA station chiefs overseas, spy-satellite imagery. But the CIA couldn’t deliver insight or foresight on the fate of its main enemy, the Soviet Union. It had “no idea in January 1989 that a tidal wave of history was about to break upon us,” said Bob Gates, who ran the CIA for Bush 41 and the Pentagon under Bush 43 and Barack Obama.
In December 1992, Bill Clinton had few profound ideas about America’s strategic interests after the Cold War. His CIA briefers drove over to the Arkansas governor’s mansion in Little Rock from their rooms at a $38.50-a-night Comfort Inn, but they drove back wondering whether the president-elect cared much about what they said. He chose a new CIA director, Jim Woolsey; they met exactly twice during the next two years. “I didn’t have a bad relationship with the president,” Woolsey reflected. “I just didn’t have one at all.”
Things were very different eight years later. Alarms flashed red; al-Qaeda’s leader, Osama bin Laden, loomed large. Clinton had grave fears; so did CIA director George Tenet. After the Supreme Court declared Bush 43 the victor in December 2000, both men warned him about the group. The president and the president-elect met alone for two hours in Crawford, Texas. Clinton remembers telling him: “Your biggest threat is bin Laden.” Bush swore he never heard that. The question remains whether Bush was listening. By contrast, Barack Obama paid attention to his CIA briefers while a howling recession pounded the United States at the end of 2008.
Does the CIA have the president-elect’s ear? Does he believe what he hears? Does Donald Trump truly disbelieve that Russia wants to disrupt democracies? The dilemma that will face American intelligence in the Trump administration was defined long ago by Richard Helms, who ran the CIA under Presidents Johnson and Nixon. “If we are not believed,” Helms said, “we have no purpose.”