“The Past 75 Years” – with Historian of the CIA Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones
Erin Dietrick: Welcome to this week's episode of "SpyCast." My name is Erin, and I'm an intern working with Andrew on the show, and he thought it would be great to let you all hear my voice. This week's guest, Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones, is an emeritus professor of American history at the University of Edinburgh. He has been studying American intelligence for half a century and has written a history of the CIA to coincide with its 75th anniversary entitled "A Question of Standing." This episode with Rhodri is a counterpoint to last week's episode interviewed with Robert Gates - a career historian and a career intelligence officer, a European and an American, a 70,000-feet view and a 30,000-feet one. Interestingly, they were born continents apart within a year of each other. He is the author of over a dozen books, has a Ph.D. from Cambridge University and grew up in Harlech, Wales.
Erin Dietrick: In this episode, Andrew and Rhodri discuss the founding of the CIA just as America became a global superpower, the CIA and the American presidents they served, covert action in Iran, Guatemala and Chile, and the role of intelligence in a democratic society. If you're a fan of the podcast, Andrew and I would greatly appreciate it if you could leave us a kind review on Apple Podcasts. Make sure to check out this week's show notes for resources to learn more. Thanks for listening, and enjoy this week's episode.
Andrew Hammond: Well, it's a pleasure to speak to you, Rhodri. The last time I saw you was a couple of years ago at the beginning of the pandemic when we'd done a public program. So we're here today to speak about your book, "A Question of Standing: The History of the CIA." And the first thing that I want to ask just before we dig deeper into your book is, at the beginning, you talk about this potential CIA conference on the Isle of Skye overlooking the Cuillin Mountains that would just involve drinking scotch and talking about the history of the CIA. That sounds like pretty much the best conference imaginable. Well, why did it not happen?
Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones: Well, this was Richard Harris Smith, who was a force to be reckoned with in the CIA in the 1960s. And I grew to be very friendly with him and had a lot of good chats. And we saw eye-to-eye on a lot of things. I liked his book on the history of the OSS, especially the bits where he criticizes British imperial ambitions in India. So he - we saw eye-to-eye in a lot of things. And he said, well, why don't we organize a conference on the Isle of Skye? And I said, well, why don't we have it in Dunvegan Castle? Perhaps we can organize that. He said, well, what should we drink? And I said, well, the Isle of Skye has very famous whiskies, but my favorite is Macallan. And he said, well, that's great because that's all we drink in the CIA.
Andrew Hammond: So this is time to come out with the 75th anniversary of the Central Intelligence Agency. How did you first get involved in studying intelligence? Because I believe you used to study the political left. Then you left, and then you moved on to the CIA. How did that transition take place?
Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones: What happened was that my Ph.D. dissertation was on violence in industrial relations in the United States. And one of the things that rose from that was my interest in the left. And eventually, I published a book on it in 2013. But one of the aspects of it that crossed over the two fields, as it were, was the phenomenon of labor espionage, spying on workers, the role of, for example, the Pinkerton Agency and spying on labor unions. And I was in conversation with a couple of friends - one of them at Cambridge University, who thought my whole Ph.D. was extremely boring, except for this one bit where I talked about spies. Then I got the same reaction from someone later on called (inaudible), who was a very fine Yugoslav historian. He said, well, this is what I find interesting, but why don't you go down to the Sterling Library in Yale, where they hold the papers of Somerset Maugham, the novelist? And Maugham was an English novelist and essayist, who was also a secret agent for the British. And he published semi-fictional accounts of this in a book called "Ashenden." Maugham was also taken on by American intelligence partly because the British turned against him because he had a homosexual relationship. And I found this all very interesting, and I wrote an essay about Somerset Maugham. And this is in the early 1970s.
Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones: And then all of a sudden, there was the big stramash about American intelligence in the mid-'70s with a major congressional investigation. So the whole topic became a hot topic, as it were, and I turned my efforts to writing a book, which was a survey of American espionage generally, and was called "American Espionage: From Secret Service To CIA." And one of the encouraging factors there was that the book that arose from my thesis, which was about labor unions and violence - as my two friends had predicted, everybody found that very boring, and I only got a publisher literally at my 33rd attempt.
Andrew Hammond: Wow.
Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones: Whereas, writing about intelligence, it was snatched up straightaway by the Free Press. So that's partly the answers to the question, right? I pursued that line. People were very interested in it, and it's always tempting to write for an interest to your audience.
Andrew Hammond: So you've been studying American intelligence for 50 years?
Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones: I guess I must have been, yes. Yeah.
Andrew Hammond: Wow (laughter). And did you ever think about moving into British intelligence, or was your interest always in the United States?
Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones: My interest is always in the United States. I think that there were already a cadre of people working on the history of British intelligence. U.S. intelligence, by comparison, was a comparatively neglected field. So I did stick with the American theme. Though later on, I got to be interested in Anglo-American intelligence relations and wrote the history of that. So to a certain limited degree, I got to know a little bit about British intelligence and interviewed people like David Omand, who is a leading figure in recent intelligence history.
Andrew Hammond: When you set out to write this book, what is it you were trying to do?
Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones: Well, I set out to write a history of the CIA, which did two things - first, looked at the antecedents of the CIA quite carefully and second, brought it right up to the presence because there wasn't really anything substantial available on the history of the CIA in presence century. So that was my goal.
Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones: I also started off with a kind of thesis, which was that the efficacy of the CIA depends on its standing. I think that people familiar with Washington, D.C., politics will immediately agree with this phenomenon, that it all depends where you are in the pecking order and when did you last see the presidents, this kind of thing. So I think that's kind of a fairly obvious thing to say. But there are other aspects to the question, too, which interested me.
Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones: One of them was the degree of interest by the presidents and the competence of particular presidents in handling intelligence matters. The other, of course, is the quality of the findings that the CIA presented the presidents. But also, I was interested in the role of Congress and public opinion because if the CIA is not in good standing with the American people - and this is one of its great virtues and advantages that it was democratically established, the first intelligence agency in the world to have legislative underpinning, and that's a great source of strength, in my view, to the agency - but if for some reason it becomes less popular with the American public, that's a problem. But as the book progressed, I then began to look at also the history of the CIA and its actions in relation to the standing of the United States itself. I asked myself, what impact has that had on American soft diplomacy and the American standing in the world?
Andrew Hammond: It's quite interesting the way that you describe in the book. You're basically saying that by the end of the Second World War, America comes out of the war as the major world superpower but has never had a permanent central intelligence agency. So all of a sudden, the CIA has responsibilities all over the world, has to get up to speed really, really quickly. I find that quite interesting because it's - is that's when it was born, but it's born just at the moment that America became the world's biggest superpower. So they didn't have a lot of time to organically grow as America organically grew.
Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones: Yes. It was a huge ask for the CIA to basically get on top of world politics and to know something about literally every country in the world and the flow of politics and influence and so on in every country in the world. I mean, it wasn't without its antecedents. I mean, for example, the FBI had a brief to run intelligence in the Americas, but it had to give up when the CIA was established. But even there, it wasn't much of a brief because J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI director, was so annoyed that the CIA got the whole of the international brief that he refrained from handing over to the CIA the FBI's well-established agents in South America. So even that wasn't a huge help to the CIA. And there had been antecedents. For example, in the First World War, there was a very obscure organization called U1 - the letter U being the first letter in Under Secretary of State. This was the person who had responsibility for running it. This was a purely intelligence unit, which did some intelligence gathering, coordination of intelligence and some analysis.
Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones: U1 continued for a few years after the Treaty of Versailles entirely disbanded because of the view that - view in the State Department in particular, that trust was an important agreement - ingredient in international relations. And the State Department didn't want to be associated with a unit which could be regarded as engaging in skullduggery, though I wouldn't really associate U1 with that. But that was the feeling in the State Department. And, to a certain extent, that's continued right through because, of course, the CIA is an independent stand-up unit and independent from the State Department. That's suited the State Department very well, although it is sometimes jealous, of course, of the CIA's influence and standing.
Andrew Hammond: One of the things that I found fascinating was - you say that the Secret Service America's (ph) first set up by executive order. What would later go on to become the FBI is set up by executive order. The OSS is set up by executive order. But the CIA actually has legislative footing. That's quite interesting. And you say it's the world's first intelligence agency established with a democratic mandate.
Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones: It is, yes. I mean, if you make a comparison with the U.K., MI5 and MI6 had no such mandates. And their very existence was meant to be a secret. And even until recent years, the name of the director of MI5, MI6 was supposed to be a secret. I mean, quite a few people knew who it was. But in theory, that was a secret.
Andrew Hammond: Tell us a little bit more about the founding of the CIA. Give our listeners a bit of context about how that comes about.
Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones: Well, there was - at the end of the war, Truman disbanded OSS, which was a wartime intelligence agency, which some people think was an antecedent of the CIA. Although I think that we need to be a bit careful in making that comparison. So at the end of the Second World War, America didn't really have much of intelligence capacity at all. President Truman established a Central Intelligence Group, and some former OSS people were imported into that, together with some army intelligence people. But it was a very minor unit.
Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones: At this point, of course, the Cold War started, and Churchill made his famous speech in Fulton, Mo., about the Iron Curtain descending across Europe. And President Truman - although he's regarded sometimes as being a bit naive, and he himself categorized himself as someone who was really shocked and then innocent in the context of international relations. He nevertheless, very early on, recognized that the Soviet Union was going to be a serious problem. And he commissioned from the Central Intelligence Group, as its very first report, a report on what kind of threat one could anticipate from Moscow.
Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones: Now, that's one of the most important threads feeding into the establishment of the CIA, and particularly important, of course, because the president of the United States had this concern. But there's another very important thread that feeds into it, and that is Pearl Harbor. America had been caught unawares in 1941 by the surprise attack. And when you look at the congressional debate on the establishment of the CIA, nobody - literally nobody - mentions the Soviet threat. Many people - in fact, everybody - mentions Pearl Harbor at length. So when it comes to legislative intent - and one can understand why, because a lot of people in Congress had relatives in the armed forces. Some of them had people who had been killed in Pearl Harbor. Some of them were ex-servicemen and sailors. You can understand why this is in the forefront of their concerns. That's what they were concerned about.
Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones: So the two streams of motive going into the establishment of the CIA - and I think that's important because - it actually becomes important in the 1990s, much later, because the Cold War has ended. The Soviet Union - people thought, at the time, Russia and the Soviet Union no longer posed a threat to the United States. And there was quite a serious demand for the disbandment of the agency, led by Senator Moynihan, who introduced a bill for its abolition. Moynihan believed that intelligence should be reintegrated into the Department of State. Well, it had been in the First World War. And - but the very fact that the legislative intent behind the CIA was not purely to do with frustrating the Soviet Union then gave the CIA a rationale for continuing in the 1990s because if Pearl Harbor was also - the avoidance of future Pearl Harbor - this was also an important task for the CIA - then that gave it a reason for continuation after the end of the Cold War. So what you had in the 1990s was fewer resources being devoted to the CIA, but not many people really agreed with Senator Moynihan that the agency should be disbanded entirely.
Andrew Hammond: We'll be right back after this.
Andrew Hammond: I found that a really fascinating part of the book because that is going against the grain of the prevailing wisdom that when you think CIA, you think Soviet Union. But in the legislative debates anyway, that - you're saying that that isn't mentioned at all. It's all about avoiding a future Pearl Harbor. And avoiding a future Pearl Harbor is something that never goes away, whereas a political entity - like Soviet Union, obviously - that go away.
Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones: That's right, yeah. I mean, obviously, the Soviet Union became a major concern. And many of the legislators who had been primarily concerned with Pearl Harbor in 1947, when the agency was established, went along with the consensus that the Soviet Union was the main threat to the United States. But nevertheless, I think it's important to remember that the CIA was established as a catch-all intelligence agency and as purely a Cold War instrument.
Andrew Hammond: So I just want to take a brief segue into discussing intelligence failure. I've been thinking about where to place this issue in the context of the interview, and I feel like, now we've just discussed Pearl Harbor and the CIA's reason for existing, this may be a good place to discuss it. And what I'm trying to get at is this idea of intelligence failure. So I thought, who better to ask than an emeritus professor at Edinburgh University who's been studying this issue for 50 years?
Andrew Hammond: It seems to me that political scientists can't predict the future. Economists can't predict the future. Sociologists can't predict the future. So just as a historian who's got a really good understanding of cause and effect and how one thing can lead to another, how realistic is this task of prediction of where the world's going to go? And I guess it's a matter of degrees - right? - like, one as - well, your enemy has said in a public speech that they're going to attack you on the 4 of May 2026. You don't do anything about it, then that's intelligence failure. But if it's just some tea leaves in a cup that can be interpreted 50 different ways, how much can you be held to account for not interpreting them in the one way in which it actually turns out?
Andrew Hammond: So I guess I'm just trying to take advantage of your knowledge of how the historical process actually works and this idea of prediction? Is this rooted in some kind of false enlightenment idea about what we can use knowledge for, or - yeah, just talk around this or help me understand your view on this idea of intelligence failure. And I know that the examples are different. Pearl Harbor is different from Korea, which is different from the end of the Soviet Union, which is different from the end of 9/11, but just at a more general level, help me understand your thinking on this idea of production and intelligence failure as a historian.
Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones: Well, I think we can go back to the debate about the CIA in the 1940s. One of the persons who had input was a guy called Willmoore Kendall, who was in intelligence for a while and then later on became quite a famous neoconservative philosopher. He was very critical of the idea that the CIA should be established in order to preempt surprise. He'd listened to the debate in Congress about Pearl Harbor. He said, you just can't predict everything that's going to happen in the future. If you model yourself on what's happened in the past, then you're going to be caught out again because people know that's what you're modeling. It's like the battleship becoming obsolete in World War II. It happens all the time. But sometimes the admirals - you know, they get caught in a time warp. And they say this is what works. You know, we had a victory with this last time. So I think the CIA finds itself in a very difficult position there. History does repeat itself, but never in the same way - never repeats itself exactly. So it's very valuable. And there have been a lot of historians in the CIA - in fact, I think seven presidents of the American Historical Association were, at some point, either in the OSS or the CIA. So there is a link between the two.
Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones: The past is a very useful guide to the future, but it doesn't give you the precise time and place where something is going to happen. And that tends to be where the CIA comes in for heavy criticism. I mean, for example, in the case of 9/11, there was plenty of warning coming out from the CIA about an imminent attack. They knew who was planning it. They knew that it was going to probably involve aircraft. They knew that the Pentagon was likely to be a target. They had a rough idea who the personnel were, but they couldn't identify the precise place and the precise time. And doing that - it can be done, but it's a huge ask of any organization.
Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones: But when it comes to failure, I mean, the CIA has really been hit on the head by people who are being wise after the events. Time and time again, people say, you know, the CIA got this wrong. And of course, there is a whole list of failures. But what people tend to forget is the successes that the CIA has had, which I suggest far outweigh the failures. And one must remember that we don't know about all the successes, purely because of the nature of the organization and what it does. They cannot trumpet successes very often because it will betray what they know, who is doing it, the methodology.
Andrew Hammond: It seems to me, as well, that it's also in a difficult position because it's not as if they can come out swinging, be in defense of what they're doing because of the nature of the work. So it's - I know it's a little bit of a cliche, but it's the whole idea of there's policy successes and intelligence failures.
Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones: That's, I think, connected with the idea that the director of the CIA is always the fall guy. If something goes wrong, it's expected that he should take the blame, whether that's right or wrong. I mean, the famous wordplay on this took place between Allen Dulles and John F. Kennedy after the Bay of Pigs fiasco, when Kennedy, of course - when Kennedy fired both Dulles and Richard Bissell. And Kennedy explained to Dulles that if this were the United Kingdom, I'd have to resign. I'd have to take responsibility. But it isn't. We have a different system here. You have to resign. And the CIA took - and, of course, there were mistakes in the Bay of Pigs, as the CIA's own reports indicate. Equally, however, it was poor decision making in the White House.
Andrew Hammond: That's a perfect segue on to the next set of issues that I wanted to discuss. So in the book, you speak about some of the covert actions in the early days. You speak about Guatemala, Iran. These examples or this uptick in these types of activities in this period - because they trail off to a certain extent, and you don't quite see - you see Chile in 1973, but you don't see it quite so much. When people think of the bad things that the CIA were involved in, they quite often think of Iran and Guatemala. Why did that happen? Was this because of Eisenhower administration? Is it because Dulles was a hardliner? Is it because the CIA was still learning the chops of being an intelligence agency or conducting covert action? Was it overambitious and it just hadn't quite got up to speed with what it took to do this type of stuff? Or - help us understand your analysis of why these happen and then why they stop happening as frequently.
Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones: I think if - when you look at Iran and...
Andrew Hammond: Sorry. If you could just really briefly - I realize that listeners may not know what those are. So if you just really briefly insert what happened with both of them and then go on to your point.
Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones: In both Iran and Guatemala in the early 1950s, they had democratically elected governments. Mosaddegh was the prime minister in Iran and Arbenz in Guatemala. But both of these countries, both these governments were leftward leaning, and the government of the day thought that this might entail moves against American business. And it might entail those countries eventually falling within the Soviet orbit. And so the CIA participated in the events which led to the overthrow of those two people, with the installation of dictatorial regimes in each case. And in the case of Iran, this was - proved to be a very long-term headache for United States foreign policy. But I would characterize them both as failures masquerading as successes because within the administrations at the time, they were thought to be great successes.
Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones: Now, why is this, to a certain degree, a finite phenomenon? First, I think that there must have been some realization how unpopular these actions were in the international community. So by the end of the 1950s, for example, the United States had lost its majority in the General Assembly of the United Nations, which was an international organization of its own creation, established in San Francisco, headquarters in New York, and yet, the United States could no longer command the majority there by the late 1950s. And I think that there was a realization this was partly because of the actions that America taken, such as in Guatemala and Iran.
Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones: But I think you've got to ask also - if you ask, why the 1950s, you've got to ask, why not earlier? Why did the United States not engage in similar practices earlier on? It's interesting that first, in the aftermath of the Second World War, there was determination not to declare war anymore. You couldn't achieve objectives by declaring war. I mean, you can see Putin today, for example, has not declared war on the Ukraine. Second, there's the importance of the Montevideo conference of 1933, which is a Pan-American meeting at which Franklin D. Roosevelt - President Roosevelt - agreed, along with all the other participants, that they would never again intervene in the internal affairs of another American country. And what was meant by that was sending the Marines in because up till then if there'd been a problem with financial instability or a threat to American economic interests, you sent the Marines in. And once they sorted things out, then you return the country to their owners. But this is extremely unpopular.
Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones: Now after the Montevideo conference, if the United States had a problem in a particular country, you couldn't send the Marines in. You couldn't declare war after 1945. And so the answer was to engage in more surreptitious actions, which could not be attributed to American policymakers. So that's why, I think, in the 1950s you have a takeoff in that kind of undercover operation. And if it's finite - and it is a comet of the long tail, as you pointed out. There are examples in Chile, Nicaragua and so on later on. But insofar as it's a specific, time-defined phenomenon, I think that's part of the reasoning.
Andrew Hammond: And the Iran one is with us until this day, right? I think it's really interesting that in the book you describe it as, like, the American Revolution in reverse, where George III was put back on the throne. And of course, in Iran things turned out very differently in the long run.
Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones: That's right. Well, the shah was reinstalled and given dictatorial powers, and it turned out to be a very oppressive regime. The secret - the internal secret service, SAVAK, was a pretty ruthless organization. But looked at from the outside, it sometimes seemed to be a progressive regime. So the shah in the 1960s had what he called the White Revolution. That meant better rights for women, better education, a series of reforms of that kind. So looked at through Western spectacles - for example, through feminist spectacles, things seemed to be going well. And one can understand in a way why the United States placed its confidence in the shah. But, of course, it all came unstuck.
Andrew Hammond: How much do you think that these two events, Iran and Guatemala, have defined the way that the CIA was perceived around the world? When did this knowledge of both of them come out? When was it acknowledged that someone had their thumb on the scale and touted things one way or the other?
Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones: I think that if you talk to people from the countries concerned, they knew about it all along in the 1950s. And I remember going to cocktail parties in the 1950s, and people would say - where does all the money come from? This is a very expensive event, and people would say, oh, the CIA. And it was kind of partly a joke, but it turned out in the end that the CIA did subsidize a lot of things like that. So I think that people through the world knew about it. But the people kept in the dark were the citizens of the United States themselves. And realization of what was going on there really only began to leak out in the 1960s, perhaps when Ramparts magazine, which is a Catholic progressive magazine in California, in 1967 published a series of articles showing how the CIA had recruited organizations like the National Students Association to influence events in foreign countries. The emphasis in 1967 was on the way in which the CIA had kind of spawned American citizens when it wasn't supposed to operate at home at all. The FBI had the domestic remits, and the CIA was supposed to confine its activities to overseas.
Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones: But also, there was a dawning realization that something had been going on overseas that people were not so aware of. Then the whole - the lid came off the kettle, as it were, in the 1970s with the major revelations then. There were, however, I think, suspicions earlier on in domestic politics that the CIA was up to no good, as it were. Senator Joe McCarthy in his Scare years had the No. 1 as his prime target, because he said that the CIA contained communists.
Andrew Hammond: And just before we leave regime change by covert action, it's interesting that you point out that there was a double standard that European nations are allowed to choose some combination of liberalism, capitalism and socialism and make their own cocktail from that. And you say that that's what most nations want. Every nation's got some degree of socialism - you know, socialized freeways, socialized streetlamps, socialized public education. So you say that for Western nations, you're allowed to choose which combination you want. But as soon as socialism is involved in places that are in, say, South America, then, all of a sudden, it becomes a problem.
Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones: I think there's certainly an element of truth in that. I think that's partly - it's a pragmatic approach. Americans, rightly or wrongly, think that Europe is politically mature and can handle left-of-center governments without having a lurch to the left, whereas countries in - developing countries are little bit less stable. The tradition of democracy is not as old. And so any kind of move towards the left, there's a danger of getting out of control and making them susceptible to communist influence.
Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones: Well, perhaps I should say that in the past tense because it seems to me that communist influence is pretty much a dead duck these days. You couldn't possibly describe Russia as being communist. And although the - China is, in theory, run by the Communist Party, many elements of Chinese life - critical elements of Chinese life - have no bearing on communism whatsoever. But nevertheless, I suppose that you could argue that some people maintain there's a danger of countries lurching to the left, but I think it's more of a historical phenomenon than a present day one.
Andrew Hammond: And just to put some of those comments in historical context, in the - when the United Nations is founded, we're talking around 50 states. But nowadays, we've got 192 states. So during these early years of the CIA, there was a tremendous growth in the number of states around the world. And in those states, I guess you could argue that, yeah, maybe there's more danger with a left-wing government becoming communist and it staying that way and ossifying and being that way forever because there's not been this tradition of the recalibration of political power through elections and so forth. So you mention this in the book Sidney Gottlieb, allegations of Castro, Patrice Lumumba, Trujillo, and then we get up to the Church Committee and the heart attack gun and so forth. Tell us a little bit about the history of assassinations and the CIA.
Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones: Well, the interesting - one interesting thing about that is that the United States never did assassinate head of states. There were preparations for such assassinations, and Gottlieb's Health Alteration Committee is linked to that, as you say. And...
Andrew Hammond: That's such an interesting name - the Health Alteration Committee.
Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones: It is, yes, straight out to George Orwell. But as you know, in the case of Patrice Lumumba, who was the president of the Congo - newly independent Congo - there was a plan to assassinate him. But the Belgian special services got there first and killed him before the CIA could. And there were many attempts to get rid of Castro, but none of them succeeded. But nevertheless, the revelation that there had been plans to assassinate foreign leaders was highly sensitive in the 1970s, largely, I think, because there'd been a wave of domestic assassinations in the United States with John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and so on. And so that is a very sensitive subject.
Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones: An interesting thing about assassination is the way in which it was banned. President Ford issued an executive order banning assassination. And as soon (ph) - saying he was quicker on the draw in doing that than Congress. Now, had Congress legislated against assassination, it would have had a more enduring effect, probably. But although, later on, other presidents repeated the executive order - President Reagan, for example - gradually, that ban on assassination began to fade in its efficacy, possibly because it is only an executive order and not a law passed by Congress and signed by the president.
Andrew Hammond: So one of the other things that I wanted to ask was - it's quite interesting to me that you speak about how, in the early days, the CIA was seen as being towards the left, but then it begins to be seen as a more right-wing - more to the right. So ostensibly, it's non-political, right? It's apolitical. But help us understand - as a historian, how have you seen the CIA evolve politically? Or how do you - how has it been perceived to have evolved politically, whether or not that actually was the case?
Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones: I think it's the last point you make there that's important. The CIA is meant to be apolitical, and I think they always try their very best. Nobody's perfect. Everybody holds political views, after all. But as an organization, institutionally, it has always tried to be apolitically - apolitical and very successfully. But what's varied is the opinion of the CIA. So gradually - the CIA was the brainchild of liberals. You could describe it in the year 1947 as yet another New Deal agency. You know, the New Deal - just liberal experiment of government. If there was a problem, they invented superrich and so on.
Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones: Now, domestically - of course, Eisenhower was no liberal, and he was a great supporter of the CIA. But the Republicans didn't really warm to the CIA until it came under heavy attack in the 1970s. It's a complex picture, because people had all kinds of different attitudes. But by the 1980s, I think you begin to see the CIA as being something which is in the conservative pantheon, something that they look up to and admire. And that continues for some time. Recently, in the year 19 - 2016, only 3% of Republicans approved of the CIA. And that, of course, was because of its perceived role in exposing the Russian meddling in the presidential election of 2016. So there's been quite a dramatic flux in public attitudes towards the CIA, defining public attitudes as left-wing or right-wing, liberal or conservative. And I think that's a much more significant phenomenon than any such fluctuations in the CIA itself.
Andrew Hammond: Your book's titled "A Question of Standing." Help us understand that standing with presidents. So we don't have time to go into each one, but Lyndon Baines Johnson - he's got a very colorful story about the CIA, which I'm not going to repeat on air. Nixon has got the clowns out at Langley. They're not particular fans of the CIA. Then you've got Carter, who comes into office saying that he's going to clean them up, and then he embraces them after the Soviet Union invades Afghanistan in 1979. Reagan embraces the CIA. George H.W. Bush does. But then Clinton's CIA director, James Woolsey - a plane crashes in the White House grounds, and the joke at Langley is that's the director trying to get some face time with the president. So there's a lot of ground to cover there, but help us understand that relationship, as you view it from your 70,000-feet view of the president and the CIA.
Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones: Seventy-five thousand feet.
Andrew Hammond: Seventy-five, sorry.
Andrew Hammond: That's 5,000 above U-2.
Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones: I mean, the examples you give are good'uns (ph), and I agree with them all. There were presidents, of course, who placed a value on the CIA and respected its outputs. I think I'd include Truman there, though that is partly because, of course, Truman told it what its business should be, and the CIA did that business. And so he liked it. You know, there was a good - he was a bit of a moaner. I mean, you can find Truman moaning about the CIA. But essentially, he was supportive. Although infamously, after the Bay of Pigs, he said he never approved of that kind of thing. But that's just him being a bit opportunistic.
Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones: Now, Eisenhower, I think, was very good with intelligence, and I'm certainly not alone in thinking that. Serious historians of the Eisenhower presidency would go along with that. Eisenhower had huge experience as commander in chief during the Second World War, and he presided over NATO. And he was in a position to appreciate what intelligence could do for him as president. He also, I think, greatly appreciated what the CIA achieved under Allen Dulles in terms of the Soviet Estimate. The CIA - it is very difficult to know the extent of the Soviet threats because the Soviet Union was a closed society. And the CIA developed a very clever economic analysis of how to find out how strong the Soviet economy was. Allen Dulles' speech is actually very good in this - right? - economically quite sophisticated. And they concluded that they couldn't possibly produce as many bombers and as many missiles as some people feared. And Eisenhower was perfectly ready to go along with this. And he made sure that American national security policy didn't become over aggressive towards the Soviet Union based on false estimates. So he was certainly someone who listened.
Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones: I think that the current president, President Biden, is likely to prove to be someone who listened, partly because William J. Burns, his current director of the CIA, is a really impressive guy who knows Russia inside out, was an ambassador to Russia and so on. They've had their differences, of course, over Afghanistan and the speed of U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. So did Obama, I think, listen to John Brennan, in particular. I think John Brennan was an impressive director of the CIA. For example, he, at one stage, told his Russian counterparts that it is a big mistake to try to intervene in American politics because there would be a backlash. This is long before it actually happened. And, boy, was he proved right. And he was also the person who took some action on a point that a lot of people had been worried about, which was digital warfare, and set up a new department. I think it was the Department of Digital Innovation in the CIA. He was impressive, and I think that President Obama listened to him. So we do have - we have had presidents who listened to the CIA.
Andrew Hammond: In looking at it over the 75 years that you've examined the CIA, help us understand as well, how much has the CIA treated the president as a client and how much has it treated the president as a customer? So I'm thinking for a customer - OK, I hear that you don't like what we're telling you. Let's have another look. Or we just keep information from the customer that they don't want to hear or that is going to be uncomfortable for them. And how much has it been like a client? Like a lawyer - like, you know, I hear what you're saying, but that doesn't really matter. These are what the facts are, and this is my analysis of how we should proceed. Yeah, well, where do you see that line over the years? Has it stayed constant? Has it consistently been on one side or the other? Or is it just..
Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones: It has - I think it's varied considerably over the years, and there's no straight answer to it because sometimes you find that the CIA is pressing its view on the president in the - regardless of the fact that it's bad news from the president's point of view, and he really doesn't want to hear this. But at other times, today, in order to preserve its overall standing in the White House and its influence, and, indeed, in order for the director of the CIA to keep his job, they may modify what they're telling the president. And the story of the Vietnam War years is not edifying in retrospect. The CIA had a lot of information indicating what was going wrong. They did, to a certain extent, communicate that to Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon, but they didn't really press their case.
Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones: And one question I would ask is, why has no director of the CIA actually resigned because the president isn't listening? You know, if you have a really important problem, a really important divergence of outlook, why has none of them resigned? Almost all of them will talk about the importance of speaking truth to power. But in practice, it's a varied picture. And in the case of the weapons of mass destruction controversy, I think that's the case. People in the CIA knew very well that Saddam Hussein did not possess weapons of mass destruction, but it would have been - it was judged in prudence to make a huge issue of it. And so the matter was let right (ph) with dire consequences for American foreign policy.
Andrew Hammond: I wonder if, on the resignation issue, is part of the answer there that the CIA director is not a policymaker? They are not there to say - Cyrus Vance, Jimmy Carter's secretary of state - Secretary of State Vance is there to say, we definitely should not do this. I'm here to make policy. And because he felt like he wasn't listened to or the matter was so serious and important, he resigned, but the CIA director's not there to try to do that. The CIA director's just there to say, this is the case or isn't the case. Do you think that's part of the reason why there's been no resignations?
Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones: I think it is part of the explanation, yes. It's a blurred line. I think that there's no pressing reason to fire a civil servant, which is what the director of the CIA is. He shouldn't resign. Lesser people in the CIA have quit the agency and resigned because they didn't like what was going on. But of course, a supplementary question there is, it's one thing to resign. And you can tell people privately why you're resigning. Do you make it into a political issue? And there, I think you put your finger on a problem when you say that the director of the CIA is not a politician. He could resign, but if he were to make a political issue of it, wouldn't he be contravening the terms under which he was appointed?
Andrew Hammond: And at the present day, how do you see the CIA adapting to the changing historical picture it finds itself in? So we went from the Cold War to the period between the Cold War and the war on terror. We've come out of the war on terror, and now we're in this new environment where China and Russia are increasingly asserting themselves, and the United States is being challenged in ways in which it hasn't been for quite some time. So how do you see this unfolding picture shaping up?
Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones: Well, I think we can be grateful that one of the reasons for the formation of the CIA was Pearl Harbor and not just the opposition to the Soviet Union because it means that the CIA is still in business and with a remit of assessing threats as they arise and making adjustments accordingly, which is quite a challenge, of course, but that's what the CIA is doing at the moment. When - in the wake of 9/11, there was a huge readjustment in the direction of fighting terrorism, and I was talking to someone who was in charge of what the Soviet Union has become - now that the Soviet Union was no more, the Russian department. And he said that he was asked to request that people from his analytical team move over to the anti-terror squad. And he said he did this, but tried to ensure that these people who went were masters of all trades rather than specialists so that he didn't lose his best people. But in recent times, of course, that policy has had to be reversed because Russia has become a problem again, so the CIA can't afford to rest on its laurels and continue with systems as they are. It has to change all the time.
Andrew Hammond: It's been really great to speak to you. Thanks for your time, and congratulations on your book.
Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones: Thank you.
Andrew Hammond: Thanks for listening to this episode of "SpyCast." Go to our webpage, where you can find links to further resources, detailed show notes and full transcripts. We have over 500 episodes in our back catalog for you to explore. Please follow the show on Twitter @INTLSpyCast and share your favorite quotes and insights or start a conversation. If you have any additional feedback, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm your host, Dr. Andrew Hammond, and you can connect with me on LinkedIn or follow me on Twitter @spyhistorian. This show is brought to you from the home of the world's preeminent collection of intelligence and espionage-related artifacts, the International Spy Museum. The "SpyCast" team includes Mike Mincey and Memphis Vaughn III. See you for next week's show.