James Schlesinger: New Direction
I thought I could…make this community something more than a
contending set of baronies with one dominant baron.
Nixon’s choice of James R. Schlesinger to replace Helms as DCI made sense. Thanks to his analysis of intelligence in 1971, Schlesinger was exceptionally knowledgeable about and personally invested in ideas for improving DCI leadership of the community. Also, the start of Nixon’s second term seemed to be an opportune time to attempt more far-reaching change than Helms had been willing to pursue. Schlesinger’s status as an administration insider caused some to view him as the first “political” DCI, charged with bringing CIA onto the president’s team. At the same time, White House backing gave him potential advantages in shaping intelligence programs across the entire community. He certainly believed he could be—and would be seen as—more “objective” in his community role than Helms by virtue of his lack of association with past or ongoing CIA programs, and he intended from the outset to strengthen the DCI’s ability to exercise a strong community role.
As part of the process of selecting Helms’s replacement, Nixon asked Schlesinger to prepare a memorandum on the intelligence business. Schlesinger believed this tasking meant that Nixon was personally interested in the course he was going to take in the job. (By 1982, looking back at his tenure, Schlesinger said he was “not so sure” that Nixon had been truly interested in his views at the time of his appointment.) He also believed that he could effect change through his own actions without significant help from the White House or Congress. In his view, Helms had been reluctant to confront others in pressing his authority as DCI and, as a CIA loyalist, had viewed other elements of the community as “foreign bodies to be propitiated and negotiated.” Schlesinger believed that by operating in a different way he could enhance community cooperation.
As for DOD being the most important “foreign body,” Schlesinger felt comfortable with his understanding of defense issues and believed he could work successfully with DOD on intelligence matters. He did ask Nixon, however, that he, instead of the deputy secretary of defense, be allowed to chair the executive committee overseeing the NRO. Nixon assented readily, and Schlesinger hoped the change would further strengthen his position as DCI.
Community Comes First
Schlesinger intended to concentrate on his community-wide responsibilities from the outset. In testimony prepared for his use before Congress during his first month in office, he noted that the first National Intelligence Program Memorandum, done shortly before his arrival, was a response to the president’s request for a consolidated program and budget and that future such issuances hopefully would provide the president and the rest of the NSC with “an integrated overview” of the total foreign intelligence effort. He intended to involve himself “more directly” in the evaluation of requirements and program performance and in assessing appropriate resource levels. He also emphasized that: “ I can say that I do plan to devote the greatest part of my time and energies to overseeing intelligence community affairs. I intend to delegate full authority to [DDCI] Gen. Walters for running CIA so that my full attention can be given to carrying out the coordination and resource allocation responsibilities in the President’s directive.”
In this testimony, Schlesinger addressed the changes that had been made in administering intelligence programs in DOD. The new post of assistant secretary of defense (intelligence) had been created in January 1972, and Schlesinger, who had overseen DOD programs from a national budget perspective when he was in OMB, was comfortable dealing with the DOD parts of the consolidated program for which he was now responsible as DCI. Interestingly, he broached the idea of moving the State Department’s small intelligence budget (for its Bureau of Intelligence and Research, or INR) out of the national intelligence program on the grounds that it was small and almost entirely departmental in nature. This idea made sense from a budgetary or program point of view, just as had Helms’s toying with moving the ocean surveillance program out of the national program. That these impulses did not lead to action showed the difficulty of separating the “national” from the “departmental” or “tactical” aspects of intelligence. Although both of these programs arguably served the latter purposes more than the former, they did serve both, and a truly comprehensive effort to coordinate or rationalize all activities related to “national” intelligence logically had to take them into account.
Strengthening the DCI’s Community Staff
Schlesinger moved right away to make good on his intention to act as a more community-minded DCI. He felt that the IC Staff had been used as a “retirement home” for old-time CIA clandestine service officers. He replaced Bronson Tweedy, the CIA officer who led the staff, with Maj. Gen. Lew Allen, Jr., USAF, a highly regarded officer with experience in national overhead reconnaissance programs who took an analytic approach to his work. Tweedy had told him that his staff worked well with DOD counterparts but received in return “no more than lip service cooperation by the DOD management,” which stood in the way of direct contacts between IC Staff officers and intelligence program managers and their staffs. Schlesinger tried to elevate the staff chief position to a higher grade level, and he brought in officers from outside CIA to key positions under Allen.
Schlesinger was “very hopeful” that his changes to the staff would strengthen his community role. In a later interview, he said that his belief, “perhaps somewhat naively,” was: “if you treat the other agencies right on a cooperative basis, that we can have a far greater integration of the community than we have had in the past.” Although Schlesinger is rightfully considered an innovative and articulate advocate for stronger DCI leadership of the Intelligence Community, his emphasis on cooperation sounds not very different from Dulles’s belief that quiet, non-assertive collaboration can be more effective than seeking greater formal authority or issuing edicts.
Schlesinger also conveyed his intent symbolically, ordering that the highway sign noting the exit for CIA headquarters include reference to the IC Staff as well as to CIA. In his farewell remarks when he left CIA, entitled “Memorandum for All Personnel of the Central Intelligence Agency and the Intelligence Community Staff,” he referred individually to the two groups of employees. Also, he referred to the need for the community to function as a team “rather than a collection of warring entities,” and he applied the same point to the CIA, which he said “must itself be one Agency,” and also “part of a larger community.”
In March 1973, Schlesinger asked Allen and the newly invigorated IC Staff to begin thinking about changes that might be undertaken to strengthen DCI leadership of community affairs. Schlesinger gave the impression that he felt a leaner, improved IC Staff could do more to guide community activities effectively. The study group Allen formed picked as its prime target the USIB committee system, which had been the fulcrum of DCI leadership of the community under earlier DCIs. Its report gave as its first finding that: “The present community committee structure is an historically developed bureaucratic patchwork which lacks any systematic interactive capability to support community level management and decision making.”
The study had not reached completion when Schlesinger departed in July. Its main recommendation was to replace the existing arrangement of committees dominated by intelligence disciplines (e.g., SIGINT) with a new system of committees focused on geographic and functional targets of intelligence. This addressed a key concern of Schlesinger’s 1971 study, namely that the application of resources within the community be related in some visible way to the information needs of the consumers of the final intelligence products. Such a system matched well, of course, with the way consumers were themselves organized, orienting the intelligence business toward their ultimate customers’ needs, and the study group also hoped it would facilitate cross-program evaluation. What such a new system would not solve, however, as Allen perceptively acknowledged, was “the problem of conflicting objectives, priorities, etc., between the geographic committees.”
In September, the IC Staff forwarded the study’s recommendations, which had been finalized in August, to Colby on his third day as DCI. He chose not to act on them, but the study effort demonstrated the willingness of Schlesinger and his key aides—and of professionals at least on the IC Staff—to depart from past practices in devising ways of assisting the DCI’s community role and foreshadowed later impulses to organize around geographic and topical objectives of intelligence interest.
Shaking Up CIA
Schlesinger also made changes at CIA, including painful personnel reductions. They sent a message throughout the community as well as to CIA that he was not going to favor stand-pat policies at CIA while stirring up change within the community. Also, they allowed a channel for pent-up reform urges within CIA as a new generation of CIA career officers came into more senior positions.
A particular target of interest to Schlesinger at CIA was analysis, which he had addressed in his 1971 study. He and Kissinger had been active in pressing Helms on various substantive issues, not hesitating to question him about this key area of DCI leadership. The fundamental problem, Schlesinger recalled in a 1982 interview, was that CIA was not doing well its community function of collating top-level judgments on substantive matters. “Bits and pieces” were being slipped into the White House, Schlesinger recalled, and “as a result the central intelligence agency–small ‘c,’ small ‘i,’ small ‘a’–was some component of the NSC staff.” “It was Wayne Smith and his merry men down there working for Kissinger that were doing the job of putting together the overall pictures, and as a result the authority had slipped away from the CIA to do their job.” He also felt that the analysis done by the CIA was not rigorous enough, and he intended to challenge its analysts to do better. This area of Schlesinger’s interest and activity centered largely on CIA but encompassed also the DCI’s function in coordinating views from throughout the diverse community.
In his 1971 study, Schlesinger had recommended that the DCI use his deputy more to run CIA. Once he was DCI, however, he had too little time and too much need to deal with the charges about CIA’s involvement in Watergate to implement that approach. His DDCI, Lt. Gen. Vernon Walters, USA, continued to function as a deputy, sometimes speaking for CIA when the DCI acted in his community role (as at USIB), but the general did not play any particularly enhanced role. Schlesinger made particular use of William Colby, the CIA’s executive director-comptroller when Schlesinger took office, for a variety of tasks, moving Colby to head CIA’s operations and to chair a new agency executive management committee (suspending the executive director-comptroller position).
Schlesinger also moved on other fronts within CIA. He changed the name of two of CIA’s directorates (“plans” became “operations,” and “support” became “management and services”), moved some offices between directorates, and redefined several office missions with the intent of strengthening analysis of Soviet strategic military power. Some in the agency felt that reforms were needed but resented Schlesinger’s abrupt approach, which was not modulated much by Colby’s presence at his right hand.
The revelations of CIA connections to the White House “plumbers” coincided with Schlesinger’s first months as DCI. Schlesinger correctly understood that this building crisis in the administration was a challenge to CIA as an institution and demanded his personal attention. “During the four or five months that I was [at CIA], that Watergate affair began to take over almost everything else,” Schlesinger recalled in 1982, “and the desires that I had at the outset gradually were inundated by simply the necessity of protecting, arranging for the salvation of the Agency.”
These initial stages of the Watergate scandal cut short Schlesinger’s tenure as DCI, leaving him unable to build on what he had set in motion and rendering whatever else he might have done a matter for speculation. In May 1973, barely three months after Schlesinger had taken office, Nixon announced his appointment as the new secretary of defense. The growing scandal had caused the resignation of Richard Kleindienst as attorney general, and Nixon had chosen as Kleindeinst’s replacement his newly appointed secretary of defense, Elliot Richardson, thus opening up the DOD job. Schlesinger’s recollection years later was that by June or even earlier, his attention was entirely on his new job rather than on the one he was leaving. Another notable impact of Watergate was that Schlesinger, with Colby’s help, elicited from agency employees allegations of potentially illegal CIA actions. The lengthy, overlapping compilation of these allegations, which became known as CIA’s “family jewels,” came to play a major role in stirring up political pressures on intelligence that profoundly affected Schlesinger’s successors as DCI.
Despite his short tenure, Schlesinger had a lasting impact on both CIA and the IC Staff. At CIA, his administrative changes stuck, as did the personnel reductions he initiated as the US involvement in Vietnam wound down. At the IC Staff, his emphasis on evaluations that related resources to products and his appointment of a senior military officer to head it set precedents that were followed for the next 20 years, separating the staff from the hold of CIA veterans. Not to be overlooked was his influence on William Colby, who succeeded him as DCI and who worked to bring more DCI leadership to community affairs even as his own attention and energy were drawn inexorably to dealing with CIA’s “time of troubles” in the mid-1970s. Schlesinger’s biggest legacy, however, was his role in 1971 in preparing the report that suggested the community leadership role deserved a new “director of national intelligence.”