President Ford meets with CIA Director-designate George Bush, 1975 (Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library)
The sprawling Central Intelligence Agency has thousands of eyes and ears, but only one client: the president of the United States. The man who occupies that office shapes the substance and style of a relationship that extends for four or eight years. Some chief executives want intense briefings, others more charts and pictures. Some mainly listen, others ask pointed questions. Some can’t get enough of the CIA, others remain at arm’s length.
Former CIA director Richard Helms declared, “You only work for one president at a time.” His remark encapsulates the CIA’s widely varying relationships with the White House since its establishment in 1947, and the fact that the agency depends on the president in office for both the direction of its missions and its political survival. The nature of the CIA’s ties to presidents have differed widely over the years, and intelligence leaders’ working relationships and influence with the men who sit in the Oval Office reflects a mixed history of successes and challenges.
The CIA’s chief historian David Robarge discusses the agency’s changing role throughout administrations, and how presidents’ experience with intelligence and their foreign policy agendas have affected that relationship.
Gerald Ford’s replacement of Nixon-appointed CIA Director William Colby with George H.W. Bush was one of several dramatic personnel shakeups in the president’s 1975 “Halloween Massacre.” Smithsonian.com reports on why Ford later described the firings as “the biggest political mistake of my life.