The role of the Director of Central Intelligence in its operations and intelligence collection at any time is most difficult to determine. While officially the head of American's intelligence community, his activities - given the plethora of intelligence agencies, legal restrictions on their various operations, and antagonisms amongst them, especially between the Agency and the FBI, in their conduct - vary radically from time to time because of his government experience, background, outlook, rapport with his underlings, and relations with the other agencies, particularly their heads. Then the conditions of the time could change all the variables in significant ways. Given the dictates of Director J. Edgar Hoover, an obvious solution to the DCI's problems was to catch the eye of the President and his National Security Council (NSC) in the making of policy, what was bound to politicize its operations, and complicate its problems if the Bureau learned of it.
While stories of the lack of coopeation between "Wild Bill" Donovan, the father of CIA, and Hoover during WWII are legion - what helped getting America into the war when the Director didn't take MI5 double agent Dusan 'Dusko' Popov's intelligence about Japanese plans to bomb Pearl Harbor seriously, and made its successful prosecution more difficult because of Hoover's priority to catch communists and their sympathizers, especially the First Lady's, rather than domestic spies and their handlers -Donovan's successors at the Agency all had unique experiences as DCI, especially with the Bureau, but they were never sorted out, and harmonized in any meaningful way, as the current disputes over the 9/11 attacks, and the war on Iraq demonstrate.
Rear Admiral Sidney W. Souers, the first DCI, was so upset by the constant squabbling among its holdovers from Donovan's Office of Strategic Services (OSS) with the State Department that he seriously thought of turning over all its functions to the Bureau before resigning after only six months in the post. Hoover had assisted the process by constantly informing the former Roosevelt aide of all the bad apples in it from the New Deal administration. His replacement, General Hoyt Vanderberg, was so upset by Hoover's scorched-earth policy over losing operational jurisdiction in South America, and over infiltrating the new agency with his own agents, particularly William King Harvey, that he soon departed for the Pentagon as Vice-Chief of Staff of the Air Force. Vanderberg believed that it would be easier to construct the new air arm whose mission and men he was most well acquainted with rather than a new intelligence service out of its constantly squabbling components, and competitors.
His replacement, Rear Admiral Roscoe "Hilly" Hillenkoetter, was so ineffective in managing the Agency that he was forced to return to sea after a disastrous three years at the helm, little more than its daily messenger to the President with its daily briefing which Souers had started. "Hilly" was scapegoated for failing to appreciate signal intelligence about North Korea's intentions regarding the South - what Soviet spies Donald Maclean, Guy Burgess, and Kim Philby had supplied Stalin with the green light for. His replacement, Walter "Beetle" Smith, became so embroiled with Hoover and the Joint Chiefs of Staff over claims about communist activity at home and abroad that his former boss in Europe during WWII, Dwight Eisenhower, had to replace him, once he became President, though the irascable general did finally give the CIA some kind of standing with the other agencies and the White House with his introduction of National Intelligence Estimates (NIE).
Eisenhower settled upon Smith's deputy, Allen Dulles, as the next DCI, while sending Smith to the State Department to help tame his more exciting and dangerous brother John Foster, the new Secretary of State. Since then, there has essentially been a pattern of like-minded DCIs who go along with increasingly risky operations to satisfy its eager cowboys and similarly inclined NSCs, followed by DCIs, usually chosen from outside, who attempted to rein them in by various means - laws, retirements, reorganizations, congressional oversight, memoranda, and the like. The changes, though, just obliged covert operators to devise more convoluted ways for achieving whatever they wanted, with or without the President's knowledge or approval.
Dulles tried to balance the initiatives by his underlings - especially Kermit Roosevelt, Frank Wisner, Richard Helms, Richard Bissell, and Harvey - with what the President minimally wanted or at least tolerated, a tension which Helms ultimately destroyed with his covert operations against Cuba and the Soviet Union - making the Agency essentially a state within a state during the JFK, LBJ, and Nixon administrations. DCI George H.W. Bush, with Helms's help, provided for its re-establishment in the wake of Watergate, a crises which threatened its very existence, as I tried to show in my article in the Archive. William Casey, consequently, arrived on the scene as Reagan's DCI with covert operators established in other agencies, and covert operations began to roll to bring down the Iron Curtain, once Robert Gates became his deputy. Once this occurred, President Bush was willing to overlook his mistaken operations and rhetoric against the Soviets by making him DCI, once Desert Storm against Iraq had been successfully carried out. His NIE's had merely overestimated Soviet military and economic capabilities by 100%.
The outsiders who attempted to reform CIA were all frustrated in one way or another. James Schlesinger's efforts to get the Agency out of covert operations after Watergate - what he hoped to achieve by exposing the so-called "Family Jewels" - so alamred the spooks that his deputy, and long-time agent, William Colby, soon replaced him to stem the tide. Once he had redirected media interest in its covert domestic operations to assassinations that Presidents had allegedly ordered overseas, he was replaced by Bush. Carter could not abide him, replacing him as soon as he gained the Oval Office, and having Admiral Stansfield Turner unsuccessfully attempt to make the Agency into a disciplined, law-abiding one, essentially interested in collecting signal intelligence. When the Iran-Contra scandal finally surfaced in late 1986, Judge William Webster was brought over from the Bureau in the feeble hope that he would preside over its internal rehabilitation while keeping the lid on its wild covert operations from the various outside inquiries.
The only other departure from the pattern occurred when retired Vice Admiral William "Red" Raborn replaced John McCone in April 1965 - LBJ apparently worried about promoting DDP Richard Helms because of the fallout from the JFK assassination. The President - Helms characteristically recalling LBJ's alleged milking experience as a farm boy - put it this way about the intelligence agencies: "You work hard and get a good program or policy going, and they swing a shit-smeared tail throught it." (Quoted from Christopher Andrew, For the President's Eyes Only, p. 323.) Helms still succeeded Raborn in June 1966, once American troops had been withdrawn from the fiasco which the Agency had helped arrange in the Dominican Republic.
In sum, the intelligence community, especially the Agency, was in a most precarious position when the Iron Curtain finally came down. With the defeat of the Soviets, and the rollback of its bloc, conditions seemed right for a similar rollback and reorganization of the intelligence community - what certainly did not look promising for the CIA. The problems were clearly laid out in Mark Riebling's ground-breaking
Wedge: The Secret War Between the FBI and CIA, an exposé so telling that radical change seemed almost inevitable. Riebling, after recounting all the trials and tribulations of the current system during the Cold War, concluded on this alarming note for the Agency about "the old, failed framework": "It is not inconceivable that the FBI might someday be placed in charge of all counterintelligence, foreign and domestic..." (p. 457)
Long before Bill Clinton surprised everyone by being elected President in 1992, it was assumed that he would still continue Gates as DCI since the only precedent for doing otherwise had been provided by Carter in the wake of Watergate. After all, the operation of the intelligence community, especially the Agency, was thought to be above the dictates of partisan politics. The former Governor of Arkansas, though, was persuaded that there was little need for the Agency now, and was most concerned about his previous dealings with covert government, especially CIA operations, coming out - as was the Agency itself. They both were worried in their own way about what could radiate out from the still secret activities at Mena's Intermountain Regional Airport.
The unappreciated, identical interests of CIA and Clinton stemmed from the Stasi files that the West German security police turned over to the Bureau's intelligence chief Doug Gow after the fall of The Wall, indicating, among other things, that the Soviets had a most well-placed mole in the Agency. Once the Bureau informed Langley of the find, interagency relations soon deteriorated to a new low, as more Stasi files indicated that all the double agents, particularly KBG General Dmitri Polyakov and Aleksei Kulak, of Operation Courtship had been totally controlled by the Soviet bloc, almost from the beginning. After two years of squabbling, a joint task force was finally appointed to ferret out the spies and the spying.
While Bureau agents took the lead in finding them, DCI Gates took the initiative in finding all the foreign governments and business which were spying on American companies - another concern which proved most difficult for CIA-FBI cooperation. When the proposed creation of an Intelligence Czar to solve the problem failed, Gates took the lead in uncovering some of the Bank of Commerce and Credit International's (BCCI's) criminal operations - what clearly showed that while assisting Iraq's, Panama's, Abu Nidal's, and the Contras' manifold transactions and operations, the Agency failed to inform the Bureau of their illegalities, much less make arrangements for their being excused for counter intelligence purposes.
Then the Agency's National Collection Division attempted to uncover the illegal activities of Italy's Banco Lavoro Nazionale (BNL) in helping Iraq's Saddam Hussein procure weapons of mass destruction (WMD) - what Britain's MI6 (SIS) was also attempting through the London branch of BCCI. Both CIA and SIS were using the Babylon strategy that fomer Agency CI chief James Angleton had adopted for assisting and stringing along such operations until they could be crushingly closed down. (For more on this, see Riebling, p. 417ff.) The only trouble with the covert operation was that the Bureau was never informed of it, so that when the FBI's fraud squad raided the BNL's branch office in Altanta in August 1989, discovering such a vast financial effort to help Iraq obtained nuclear weapons that CIA-SIS involvement was widely suspected.
CIA's efforts against the banks clearly indicated, especially to the Bureau, that it was following some kind of hidden agenda in its dealings with them. The FBI's James Nolan, for example, complained that the Agency was only interested in the BCCI's operations overseas, not its domestic ones. Jack Blum, former chief counsel of the Kerry subcommittee on terrorism and narcotics, was more blunt, claiming that the CIA was engaging in "an enormous coverup," thanks apparently to its preventing inquiries into BCCI's and Mena's operations in the Americas. The CIA failed to answer questions about its authorization of BNL-Atlanta illegal funding for fear that other secrets about Anglo-American operations, especially those originating, and known by its Rome station, would result in successful prosecutions of various Agency agents and assets - a process which foreign intelligence services dreaded.
Clinton fitted into all this because of his dealings with the Contra operation, especially overlooking the illegal activities at Mena, but the former Arkansas governor thought that the CIA was trying to nail him by going after the banks rather than just trying to save itself. Clinton had already been caught out in the lie that he had allocated $25,000 for a grand jury investigation of the airport's activities back in 1988, and former Arkansas Congressmen Bill Alexander, who had already sent information of the coverup to special counsel Lawrence Walsh investigating the Iran-Contra scandal but without result, had seen an identical allocation from the Justice Department in Washington to Arkansas authorities become another non-starter. The source of Clinton's criminal activities, it seems, was the murder of Adler Berriman "Barry" Seal to prevent the Iran-Contra operation, just before statsminister Olof Palme's assassination, from unraveling.
In the last stages of the presidential campaign, Clinton began to have second thoughts about the Agency's pursuit of the banks, thanks to a briefing, arranged by Bush NSA Brent Scowcroft and his own deputy secuirty adviser Sandy Berger, he received from Gates himself in September 1992 in Little Rock. Once elected, as John L. Helgerson, former Deputy Director of Intelligence, has written in CIA Briefings of Presidential Candidates, the Agency set up an unprecendented outpost in Arkansas capital to keep the President-elect - who, like Reagan - Christopher Andrew reminded readers in its introduction - had had no previous experience as an intelligence comsumer - abreast of developments. Starting on November 11th, Clinton received the Presidential Daily Brief from an Agency briefer, concentrating on the agenda, especially regarding Russia, he wanted to pursue. As the President later explained about the process, "Intelligence is a unique mission....I look to you to warn me and, through me, our nation of the threats."