Richard Helms, the late director of Central Intelligence under Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, gave a bleak assessment of presidential savvy in his posthumous memoir, A Look Over My Shoulder: A Life in the Central Intelligence Agency (Random House, 2003): "No American president in a hundred years has had but a slight idea of how clandestine operations are conceived and run."
The one exception, Helms thought, was George H. W. Bush, who was himself once the DCI. "What presidents do know about secret intelligence," Helms wrote, "seems most often to come from high-spirited movies, novels, press coverage and, occasionally, bits of Washington insider gossip."
Every president has a personal relationship with the intelligence community, shaped by their own prejudices. Nixon -- who fired Helms in 1973 -- was no exception. He implicitly distrusted the CIA, which he regarded as a band of East Coast Ivy League intellectuals who conspired against him throughout his presidency. The story of Nixon and the intelligence community has been told largely through the personalities of the era. It focuses less on the role that the CIA and other agencies played in shaping Nixon-era policies.
Enter Timothy Naftali, a presidential historian, intelligence expert and, full disclosure, an erstwhile co-writer of this author. In July, Naftali became the first director of the new federal Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda, Calif. There was a private library in the same building, run by a foundation affiliated with the Nixon family, but Naftali is an employee of the National Archives and Records Administration. His tenure is widely seen as a turning point for the study of one of America's most controversial presidents.
So, how does Naftali, who used to teach intelligence history at the University of Virginia and Yale University, plan to treat that subject as part of the Nixon legacy? By putting it in broader context.
"Intelligence history has been ghettoized," Naftali says. "Intelligence is an input, classified information, and an activity, covert action. It has always been treated as a special input, but presidents see it as one of many, and covert action is just one action that a president has for implementing foreign policy."
Intelligence competes with many sources to shape a president's policies. For instance, days before Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, George H. W. Bush used classified intelligence to gauge the Iraqi leader's intentions. But Bush also personally reached out to friends in the region for information. "To get at the intangible part, Bush made phone calls," Naftali says.
Naftali hopes that, to the extent information is declassified, exhibits at the Nixon library can showcase intelligence as part of a more comprehensive story about the president's role in foreign policy. Take, for instance, the Yom Kippur War in which U.S intelligence figured prominently in the administration's decision-making. Naftali would like to include what the CIA and others were saying, and how Nixon and his aides reacted. In this sense, intelligence plays a role in Nixon history, but it's not the entire story, nor is Nixon the only character.
Naftali says Richard Helms told him, before he died in 2002, that when the president did meet with him personally, they spoke mostly about the war in Vietnam. Such limited, though important, discussions of intelligence would offer a window into the Nixon years if that's all there was to say. But if Naftali succeeds in weaving intelligence into the Nixon narrative, then we might gain fresh insights into one of our most mysterious presidents.
Shane Harris, a staff correspondent for National Journal, wrote about intelligence and technology at Government Executive for five years.