Politics, North America
From Eisenhower to Trump, the intelligence community has always struggled with its political role.
Note: this article is part of a symposium included in the March/April 2018 issue of the National Interest.
FEW QUESTIONS have greater import for the health and integrity of any republic than the question of whether important parts of its government’s national-security apparatus are abusing their power for political purposes. This is particularly true in the United States, where the departments and agencies known collectively as the Intelligence Community (IC) have grown so large and capable, where faith in the integrity of our democratic institutions is so vital to the effective functioning of our system, and where suspicions about secret police and intelligence organizations are baked so deeply into our country’s political culture.
The United States has faced this question several times in its recent history. The Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon administrations all used—or attempted to use—the FBI and CIA to gather intelligence on U.S. citizens they suspected of collaboration with communist agents, with too little regard for statutory regulations and prohibitions of such practices, and too great a tendency to view their political enemies as national-security threats. Lyndon B. Johnson believed, without much justification, that the CIA had conspired against him at the 1960 Democratic convention to ensure that John F. Kennedy won the presidential nomination. Richard Nixon was equally convinced that the CIA had helped to swing the subsequent presidential election to Kennedy. These misperceptions barely surfaced in public at the time and did little to shake voters’ faith in the outcome of the election, but they had significant implications for the working relationships of both Johnson and Nixon with the CIA once in office. Johnson’s suspicions probably increased his inclination to side with the Defense Department’s optimistic assessments of the Vietnam War over the CIA’s more pessimistic—and, in retrospect, more accurate—analyses. Nixon’s suspicions fueled his determination to build a small intelligence-gathering and covert-action group within the White House, which ultimately led to the Watergate break-in and cover-up that destroyed his presidency.