Presidential Paranoia of Past and Present

Loch K. Johnson

Much has been made of President Donald J. Trump’s attacks against the F.B.I. He has steadily belittled “the Bureau” since entering the White House. Then, as 2018 began, the President went into a full-fledged attack against the F.B.I. for its surveillance against one of his former campaign aides with suspicious ties to Russian intelligence. Moreover, President Trump has dealt roughly with the C.I.A., scoffing about its leaked findings of possible Russian secret interference in the presidential election. When the new President visited C.I.A. Headquarters, the outgoing agency director lamented the lack of respect Mr. Trump paid to the Memorial Wall that honors those agency officers who have died in the line of duty. On another occasion, the President, further angered by leaks about possible Trump campaign ties to Russia, went so far as to compare America’s U.S. spy agencies to the Nazi Gestapo.

Newspapers have described these disparagements as unparalleled in the degree of vitriol directed from the White House toward the intelligence organizations. Yet the relationship between the White House and the nation’s spies has endured other breaches over the years.

A prominent example is the secret battle engaged in by President Richard M. Nixon against the C.I.A. As revealed in a declassified memorandum from President Nixon to his chief of staff Bob Haldeman, dated May 18, 1972 (a month prior to the Watergate Hotel break-in), the C.I.A. had become a thorn in Nixon’s side. He wrote to Haldeman that the Agency “needs a housecleaning.” The President’s main complaint was that its personnel were too “Ivy League and Georgetown,” rather than the type of people Nixon preferred in the military services and the F.B.I.

He ordered Mr. Haldeman to find out how many C.I.A. officers he could remove by presidential action—ideally at least a 50 percent reduction in the higher reaches of the Agency. He advised Mr. Haldeman to use the argument that the cuts were for budgetary reasons, “but you will know the real reason,” he wrote. President Nixon further directed Mr. Haldeman to stop recruiting C.I.A. personnel from any of the Ivy League schools, or any other universities where the campus administration and faculty had opposed his approach (such as escalated bombing) to ending the war in Vietnam.

What President Nixon wanted instead was preferential hiring for those schools with administrators and faculty who had wired or written the White House in support of its Vietnam War policies. “Have the mail checked very carefully to see which ones these are,” the President wrote. “After you get past those, you can then go to other schools in the Midwest, in the South, and even possibly some in the far West (not, of course, including Stanford or Cal) where we would have a better chance to come up with people who would be on our side.” He added that retired military people were also good recruitment targets for this purpose.

Mr. Nixon even banished the C.I.A.’s top leader at the time, Richard Helms (who had graduated from one of the “little Ivies,” Williams College in Massachusetts), to the outpost of Ambassador in Iran, far away from Washington, D.C.

This does not absolve America’s intelligence agencies of past sins. In the mid-1970s, for example, the C.I.A. was found to have spied on American citizens (Operation Chaos). For its part, the F.B.I. under J. Edgar Hoover maintained the Counterintelligence Program (Cointelpro), which involved not only improper spying against domestic antiwar dissenters and civil rights activists, but also attempts to ruin their lives through anonymous smear campaigns,  most famously against Martin Luther King, Jr..

The United States learned the hard way that its secret agencies had to be placed within the framework of the rest of the government, with all the checks and balances that applied to the more visible departments and agencies. In the mid-1970s, following major investigations into secret agencies’ transgressions, Congress created special committees (one in the Senate and another in the House) for permanent intelligence supervision. A new Era of Intelligence Accountability had begun, replacing the nation’s long span of benign neglect toward the hidden side of government.

Sometimes the oversight fails, as demonstrated most recently by the unseemly partisan wrangling in the House Intelligence Committee over the F.B.I’s warrant to surveil the Trump presidential campaign aide. Nevertheless, the degree of proper supervision over America’s clandestine operations has improved dramatically when compared to the earlier years—a difference as stark as night and day.

What these agencies don’t need, though, is a White House that seeks to humiliate them at every opportunity. Their important work rests on the trust and respect of the American people and should not be held hostage to the criticisms of erratic and paranoid presidents.


Loch K. Johnson is Regents Professor in the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia. His latest book is entitled Spy Watching: Intelligence Accountability in the United States (Oxford University Press, 2018).

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