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Presidential Reflections on U.S. Intelligence: Ronald Reagan

From President Truman on, each president has written a note of thanks to the men and women of the CIA. These notes are displayed with the president’s official photograph in the Presidential Gallery of the New Headquarters Building. This story is the fifth in a series about the relationship each president has had with the CIA. This article will focus on President Ronald Reagan.

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During President Ronald Reagan’s term in office (1981-89), he faced many challenges. In the 1980s, the Cold War was going strong and was made even worse by events such as the Polish government’s declaration of martial law, the Soviet shootdown of a Korean airliner, and the USSR’s support for Communist governments and movements in Afghanistan and Central America. During these difficult times, President Reagan received daily briefings from the Central Intelligence Agency that helped him make important policy decisions.


Leadership Transition

After the 1980 election, many at the CIA were unsure of the relationship the Agency would have with President-elect Ronald Reagan. The election marked the end of a challenging relationship with President Jimmy Carter, but many of Reagan’s closest advisors had been prominent critics of CIA analyses of the Soviet Union.

This concern proved to be unfounded, as Reagan had a profound understanding of and respect for the work of CIA. Reagan sent his campaign manager, William Casey—an OSS veteran—to be director of a renewed CIA. From the beginning, encouraged by National Security Advisor Richard Allen and Vice President George H.W. Bush, Director Casey and CIA analysis enjoyed unprecedented access to President Reagan, including through the President’s Daily Brief. Bush was particularly persuasive as a former Director of Central Intelligence.

Reagan lacked experience in dealing with foreign policy matters and had a lot to learn. From the beginning, Reagan was a studious and interested customer. He read through the briefings carefully, asked questions, and requested more detailed intelligence assessments on subjects of policy interest. When briefed by CIA analysts, Reagan listened attentively as they presented different views — even if he didn’t agree with them. The Agency was the only government agency Reagan received analysis from on a regular basis.


Extending CIA’s Reach

As the Cold War began to heat up, Reagan decided to give the CIA more authority with respect to covert operations. In December 1981, Reagan signed Executive Order 12333, which gave the CIA the primary responsibility for the conduct of covert action unless the president decides another agency would better serve certain intelligence needs.

As a result of presidential covert action findings that Reagan signed, the CIA was directed to provide aid to anti-Communist movements around the globe in order to slow or even reverse the spread of Soviet influence. In particular, CIA personnel and resources were sent to Afghanistan and Pakistan to train and aid mujahidin forces in fighting the Soviet army. Reagan’s decision to increase covert action in Soviet-run countries has been credited with ending the Soviet occupation in Afghanistan, and that failure played a role in the eventual demise of the USSR.


Martial Law in Poland

In December 1981, after a period of great unrest, the Polish government imposed martial law throughout the country, placing military forces in control of law enforcement.

With the help of Polish Colonel Ryszard Kuklinski, the CIA was able to warn U.S. policymakers that martial law was likely. From 1972 to 1981, Kuklinski provided more than 40,000 pages of Polish and Warsaw Pact documents to the CIA, detailing Soviet, Polish, and Warsaw Pact plans and capabilities.


CIA Analysis Relevant to Decision-Making

President Reagan found CIA’s analytic work of direct relevance to policy decisions throughout his eight years in office. Major areas of interest for Reagan included CIA’s work on Soviet strategic weapons systems, Soviet conventional forces, Soviet negotiating strategy for arms control talks, and the Soviet leadership succession.

Based on CIA’s analysis, Reagan also persuaded Saudi Arabia to increase oil production. Oil was a main source of export revenue for the Soviet Union, and the resulting drop in prices delivered a huge blow to the country’s finances.

From the early 1980s on, the CIA assessed the Soviet economy as stagnant and judged that the Soviets could not continue to build up their military. In 1987, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and Reagan signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which eliminated an entire class of intermediate-range nuclear weapons.


A Fruitful Relationship

The relationship between President Reagan and CIA was built on mutual respect. Reagan expressed his appreciation for CIA by attending attended the groundbreaking ceremony for the New Headquarters Building in May 1984.

During his terms as president, Reagan had greatly valued the mission of CIA:

“Whether you work in Langley or a faraway nation, whether your tasks are in operations or analysis sections, it is upon your intellect and integrity, your wit and intuition that the fate of freedom rests for millions of your countrymen and for many millions more around the globe. You are the trip-wire across which the forces of repression and tyranny must stumble in their quest for global domination. You, the men and women of the CIA, are the eyes and ears of the free world.”

Carrying on the tradition started by President Truman following the Agency’s founding, President Reagan wrote a note thanking the men and women of the CIA for their service to the United States. He is the eighth president to write a note that accompanies his portrait in the CIA’s Presidents’ Gallery:

“With appreciation and very best wishes.”


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Posted: Nov 18, 2010 01:59 PM
Last Updated: Apr 30, 2013 12:42 PM