Nixon: the CIA Loses Access

Nixon’s Watergate extravaganza was, without a doubt, the defining moment of hiswhitehouseconnection presidency.  Journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein took their lives and careers in their hands to break the story.[1]  Watergate was bigger and better than the Bobby Baker[2] exposés that almost undid President Johnson and turned ‘investigative journalist’ into a storied title that reporters lusted after. In the intervening years, hundreds of fine analysts have spent untold hours and millions of words exploring the Watergate break-in and what it signifies.  The Watergate is the hole in the dam that emptied the reservoir.  Nixon built the dam, his relationship with the CIA, layer upon layer, beginning as Eisenhower’s Vice-President.

Culminating a political career that began in the House of Representatives in 1947, Richard Milhous Nixon served as the 37th President of the United States between January 20, 1969 and August 9, 1974.  Although he cut his political

William Safire joined Richard Nixon as a speechwriter for his campaign for president in 1968. (The New York Times/File 1968)

William Safire joined Richard Nixon as a speechwriter for his campaign for president in 1968. (The New York Times/File 1968)

teeth on the Alger Hiss[3] case, Nixon won the presidency on the foreign policy credentials earned during his eight years as Eisenhower’s VP.  William Safire, a Nixon speechwriter, came up with election-winning phrase “end the war and win the peace”,[4] which is exactly what the voters wanted to hear about the Vietnam War.

President Eisenhower’s approach to foreign policy differed significantly from President Truman in two areas; the role of the National Security Council and how Vice President Nixon fit into the foreign policy picture.

Under President Eisenhower, the National Security Council system evolved into the principal arm of the President in formulating and executing policy on military, international, and internal security affairs. Where Truman was uncomfortable with the NSC system and only made regular use of it under the pressure of the Korean war, Eisenhower embraced the NSC concept and created a structured system of integrated policy review. With his military background, Eisenhower had a penchant for careful staff work, and believed that effective planning involved a creative process of discussion and debate among advisers compelled to work toward agreed recommendations.[5]

Eisenhower, John Foster Dulles, Eisenhower’s Secretary of State, and Allen Welsh Dulles, Eisenhower’s Director of Central Intelligence, were from the old school; World War II.  Vice President Nixon was integrated into a foreign policy arena that “…embraced the idea that the United States needed to maintain a large, well-funded, clandestine intelligence agency capable of covert operations abroad to ensure our freedom at home.  They agreed that this agency, formed as the CIA at the end of World War II, needed the authority to plan invasions of foreign countries, launch coup d’état, and even assassinate foreign leaders as needed to contain the spread of Communism….”[6] And they did so under the deep cover of secrecy coupled with ‘plausible deniability’; notes kept during National Security Council meetings were not allowed to contain any direct quotes from any members.

A few of the activities laid directly or indirectly at the feet of the CIA Special Projects Group’s covert actions during the Eisenhower administration are: the CIA overthrow of Iran’s

Patrice E. Lumumba; Congo prime minister

Patrice E. Lumumba; Congo prime minister

Mossadegh’s government in August 1953 to restore the shah; the CIA assistance in the overthrow of the elected government of Guatemala in June 1954; and, planned during the Eisenhower era but executed during the Kennedy administration, were: Patrice Lumumba’s assassination on February 11, 1961 and the April 1962 invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs.  The other important thing that Nixon learned as Eisenhower’s understudy was that a having a plan and working a plan is important.

From the beginning, Eisenhower had and worked his ‘New Look’ plan for national security policy. “…The main elements of the New Look were (1) maintaining the vitality of the U.S. economy while still building sufficient strength to prosecute the Cold War; (2) relying on nuclear weapons to deter Communist aggression or, if necessary, to fight a war; (3) using the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to carry out secret or covert actions against governments or leaders “directly or indirectly responsive to Soviet control”; and (4) strengthening allies and winning the friendship of nonaligned governments….”[7]  Wouldn’t it be great if a few more combatants for the nation’s highest office had a plan?

It was against the backdrop of this experience that Richard Nixon took the oath of office. He was not a novice, he knew what the CIA and, in particular, the CIA Special Projects Group (covert operations) was about and how to use them.   Richard Helms, the DCI under President Johnson and FBI Director, J. Edgar Hoover, were the two retained in office as ‘appointments out of the political arena’.   In other words, The CIA and the FBI were judged to be politically neutral.

Although Helms kept his job, Nixon placed little value on the quality of the intelligence the CIA gathered. Nixon intended to personally manage foreign policy from the Oval Office and

President Nixon and henry Kissinger

President Nixon and henry Kissinger

he had a plan.  As Nixon recalled in his memoirs: “From the outset of my administration, . . . I planned to direct foreign policy from the White House. Therefore I regarded my choice of a National Security Adviser as crucial.” The newly elected President hired Henry Kissinger, a teaching staff member of Harvard University’s Department of Government, as his National Security advisor and together they set about making changes to the policy-making apparatus.  The CIA’s presidential access was restricted.  DCI Helms was relegated to reporting only to Kissinger, who passed whatever information he determined was important to the President.  Apparently, Nixon, a recluse who trusted almost no one, trusted Kissinger.

According to Tim Weiner’s Legacy of Ashes, “…they alone would conceive, command, and control clandestine operations. Covert action and espionage could be tools fitted for their personal use. Nixon used them to build a political fortress at the White House.”[8] Toward that end, Nixon and Kissinger moved smartly to consolidate Kissinger’s power. Henry Kissinger, a policy blacksmith, forged the National Security Council apparatus into a new tool that better served his needs and objectives and those of the President. According to the History of the National Security Council, 1947-1997:

helms at the national security councilThe close relationship between the President and the National Security Adviser was the basis for their ability to carry out American foreign affairs leadership around the world. The National Security Council system was the mechanism for the period of unprecedented American activism in foreign policy and the exercise of Kissinger’s growing power. Kissinger wrote later that “in the final analysis the influence of a Presidential Assistant derives almost exclusively from the confidence of the President, not from administrative arrangements.” The two men developed a conceptual framework that would guide foreign policy decisions. Kissinger’s intellectual ability, his ambition, and his frequent discussions with Nixon were all factors in increasing within the government both his own power and the unchallenged authority of the NSC system he personally directed.

The overthrow of Chile’s duly elected, Marxist President Allende, provides an excellent example of Nixon and Kissinger’s revised intelligence system at work. The existing paper-

Bombing of chile's La Moneda, September 11, 1973

Bombing of chile’s La Moneda, September 11, 1973

trail clearly illustrates a U.S. effort at the highest levels to derail Allende’s election and subsequent inauguration.  A declassified CIA document dated October 16, 1970 reads in part, “It is firm and continuing policy that Allende be overthrown by a coup. It would be much preferable to have this transpire prior to 24 October [the date Allende’s election would be ratified] but efforts in this regard will continue vigorously beyond this date.” According to a declassified telcon from the National Security Archives, “…just nine weeks before the Chilean military, led by Gen. Augusto Pinochet and supported by the CIA, overthrew the Allende government on September 11, 1973, Nixon called Kissinger on July 4 to say “I think that Chilean guy might have some problems.” “Yes, I think he’s definitely in difficulties,” Kissinger responded. Nixon then blamed CIA director Helms and former U.S. Ambassador Edward Korry for failing to block Allende’s inauguration three years earlier. “They screwed it up,” the President declared….”[9]

Helms’ time at the CIA ended in February 1973 when he was appointed to replace Joseph S.

Richard M. Helms

Richard M. Helms

Farland as the U.S. Ambassador to Iran just as the Watergate scandal that eventually unseated Nixon was heating up.  Helms knew in June 1972 that the Watergate scandal was brewing and implemented tactical measures that were not successful in distancing the CIA from the political firestorm.  The media kept the CIA in the headlines in spite of Helms’ best efforts and Helms became convinced that the leaks behind the headlines were coming from the Whitehouse.  On Saturday, January 27, 1973 at 6:22pm, Richard Helms called President Nixon.  During the call, President Nixon clearly communicates his intent to ‘blame’ Helms for Watergate.  The transcript of the telephone call is a good read:

“…President Nixon: All right. Fine. You talk and we’ll work something out, because I don’t want–I’d like to get a–since you’re going to be in charge, I’d like to get you in the deal now before it–frankly, before it blows.  Helms: Right, sir.  President Nixon: Then when it blows we can blame you. Helms: [Laughing] Great. President Nixon: You’ve been through that before, haven’t you?  Helms: Yes, sir. President Nixon: OK. FineHelms: Thank you, Mr. President….”[10]

The following week, February 2, 1973, James R. Schlesinger, former chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, became the next DCI.  Helms’ ambassadorial appointment was rushed

James Schlesinger and Richard Nixon

James Schlesinger and Richard Nixon

through the political process and by April 1973 he was in place in Iran.  James R. Schlesinger’s thread begins in 1970 when Nixon asked Schlesinger, the assistant director of the Office of Management and Budget, to assess the Intelligence Community (IC), and recommend improvements. Schlesinger’s report, issued in 1971, was controversial for mandating sweeping changes across the Agency and for streamlining intelligence collection throughout the IC.[11]  Nixon’s mandate to Schlesinger as he took control of the CIA was to implement the recommendations he had made, but by the next year Nixon was gone; engulfed in the flames of Watergate and hoisted with his own pitard.

What is the take-away from Nixon and the CIA?  One is that CIA covert operations ran amuck about the world in a futile quest to control political ideology irrespective of the president or their individual national security approaches. Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Nixon each tried a different national security approach and each failed. The CIA was worse off after each Director. Is that a reflection of the CIA director or the presidents who ran the policy machine? A glance back with 20-20 hindsight shows that the quest failed; political ideological changes made in the various countries through manipulations, regime change or assassination did not survive and many people died.  In fact, it can be argued that the U.S.’s ability to gather meaningful intelligence-something the government actually needs to protect the country-was seriously impeded because of covert operations.

[This is the fifth in a series of articles that explores the iconic CIA and its use as a tactical weapon by the presidents of the Cold War (1947-1991). The Central Intelligence Agency – In the Beginning, The Central Intelligence Agency – Eisenhower and Asia’s Back Door, Kennedy’s Central Intelligence Agency and Johnson and the CIA are the preceding posts.]

[1] University of Texas at Austin; Harry Ransom Center; The Woodward and Bernstein Watergate Papers; http://www.hrc.utexas.edu/exhibitions/web/woodstein/

[2] Spartacus Educational; Bobby Baker; http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/JFKbakerB.htm

[3] New York University; The Alger Hiss Story Search for the truth; https://files.nyu.edu/th15/public/home.html

[5] National Security Council; History of the National Security Council, 1947-1997; http://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/nsc/history.html#eisenhower

[7] University of Virginia; Miller Center; American President: A Reference Resource; Dwight David Eisenhower Front Page; http://millercenter.org/president/eisenhower/essays/biography/5

[8] Legacy of Ashes; Tim Weiner; Random House; 6/27/2007; ISBN-10: 038551445X

[9] George Washington University; national Security Archives; September 10, 2008; NEW KISSINGER ‘TELCONS’ REVEAL CHILE PLOTTING AT HIGHEST LEVELS OF U.S. GOVERNMENT; http://www2.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB255/

[10] Presidential Recordings Program; 036-113; Date:  Thursday, January 25, 1973 – 6:18pm – Saturday, January 27, 1973 – 6:22pm;  Participants:  Richard Nixon, Richard Helms; Location:  White House Telephone; http://whitehousetapes.net/transcript/nixon/036-113

[11] The Central Intelligence Agency; News and Information; Presidential Reflections: Richard M. Nixon; https://www.cia.gov/news-information/featured-story-archive/2012-featured-story-archive/richard-m.-nixon.html

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