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Book Provides Window into CIA Briefings for Presidents-Elect

John McLaughlin and President-elect Clinton relax after one of the briefings during the pre-inaugural period. Photo courtesy of McLaughlin.
John McLaughlin and President-elect Clinton relax after one of the briefings during the pre-inaugural period. Photo courtesy of McLaughlin.
When veteran CIA analyst John L. Helgerson was named lead briefer for President-elect Bill Clinton in November 1992, he was delighted to learn that intelligence briefings during presidential transitions had a long and colorful history.

And disappointed to discover that virtually none of it had been written down.

“Because the Intelligence Community’s role during transitions is unique, the Community seems to me to have an obligation to record what it has done and to make its account as widely available as possible,” Helgerson says.

That conclusion led Helgerson in 1996 to author a book for CIA’s Center for the Study of Intelligence (CSI), Getting to Know the President 1952-1992, which describes the briefing of Presidential candidates and Presidents-elect beginning with the Truman-Eisenhower transition in 1952.  A second edition, updating the story through the 2004 Presidential election, has just been published by CSI and is available on CIA.gov.

In the new edition, Helgerson relies on contemporaneous internal documents, public memoirs and interviews with four former Presidents, six former Directors of Central Intelligence (DCI) and Directors of National Intelligence, and many of his fellow transition briefers. The result is a highly readable account that describes a range of reactions across 10 changes of administration, from initial wariness to eager embrace and all points in between.

 

Colorful Anecdotes

Personal remembrances pepper Helgerson’s account. First-Lady-in-Waiting Nancy Reagan checks briefers’ dietary preferences before surprising them with a luncheon invitation.

For instance, George H. W. Bush—DCI, Vice President and later President— notes no reaction from Presidential candidate Jimmy Carter when DCI Bush briefs him on sensitive activities. Four years later, then-Vice President Bush records that President-elect Ronald Reagan offers enthusiastic support for sensitive operations and collection programs during his briefing.

Both anecdotes foreshadowed the respective Presidents’ approaches to special programs.

Personal remembrances pepper Helgerson’s account. First-Lady-in-Waiting Nancy Reagan checks briefers’ dietary preferences before surprising them with a luncheon invitation. First Brother Billy Carter asks his freshly elected sibling if CIA officers can help him “take care of” some pesky reporters. The answer, from the briefer is diplomatic; the CIA, he notes, has its own chronic press problems and wouldn't be of much use.

And historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., forced to print a retraction because of briefer Helgerson’s research, fell back on Humphrey Bogart’s famous line from the movie Casablanca

Bogart: “I came to Casablanca for the waters.”

Claude Rains: “What waters? We’re in the desert.”

Bogart: “I was misinformed.”

Since Harry Truman in 1952, Helgerson notes, every sitting President has believed that the briefings are needed to ensure their successors are well informed before taking office.

 

About the Author

Before retiring from the Agency in 2009, Helgerson served as an African politics analyst, headed offices responsible for coverage of Africa, Latin America and Europe, and was Deputy Director for Intelligence and Director of Congressional Affairs, chairman of the National Intelligence Council and CIA Inspector General.


Historical Document
Posted: Aug 23, 2012 09:21 AM
Last Updated: Apr 30, 2013 01:01 PM