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Presidential Reflections: Richard M. Nixon

Over the decades, American presidents have written notes of thanks to the men and women of the Central Intelligence Agency for their service and dedication. Each message is displayed with the respective president’s official photograph in the Presidential Gallery of CIA’s New Headquarters Building. This story—the eighth in a series about the CIA under different presidential administrations—focuses on Richard M. Nixon.

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When Richard M. Nixon took office as President in January 1969, he already had a solid grasp of international affairs. As Vice President to President Dwight Eisenhower, Nixon had traveled the world, met many foreign leaders, and received briefings from the Central Intelligence Agency. As President, Nixon would continue to draw on the Agency’s analytic support to help inform his foreign policy, including withdrawing troops from Vietnam and improving relations with China and the Soviet Union.


Nixon’s First Term: A Smooth Transition

When Nixon asked his National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger, for a recommendation on whom to appoint as the Director of Central Intelligence (DCI), Kissinger suggested keeping the incumbent, Richard Helms. Kissinger had been impressed by Helms’ professionalism and his tendency during briefings to offer facts and analysis without trying to prescribe policy.  Nixon agreed.

At Nixon’s request, Kissinger— and not the President — would be Helms’ main point of contact in the White House. Given this arrangement, Helms and the Deputy Director for Intelligence, R.J. “Jack” Smith, took Kissinger’s input and crafted intelligence products and briefings to meet the President’s needs.

The result was a new style of President’s Daily Brief, which consisted of two sections: fact and analytic comment. Kissinger, in turn, drew heavily on the analysis as he briefed the President.

During Nixon’s first visit to CIA Headquarters in March 1969, he praised the work of Agency officers, saying:

“[By] definition where the CIA is concerned your successes must never be publicized and your failures will always be publicized … So that makes your mission a particularly difficult one. It makes it difficult from the standpoint of those who must render service beyond the call of duty. And I recognize that and am deeply grateful for those who are willing to make that kind of sacrifice …”

As his first term was underway, Nixon sought an assessment of the Intelligence Community (IC), asking James Schlesinger, the assistant director of the Office of Management and Budget, in 1970 to study the IC and recommend improvements.  Schlesinger produced the report the next year. The study was controversial for mandating sweeping changes across the Agency and for streamlining intelligence collection throughout the IC.


Nixon’s Second Term: Implementing Change

After being re-elected in 1972, Nixon appointed Schlesinger as DCI in February 1973, and asked him to implement the changes that he had recommended two years earlier.  Although he served as the DCI for only five months—President Nixon appointed Schlesinger as Secretary of Defense in July 1973—he wasted no time in putting his plan into place. He instituted broad reforms, designating the DCI as the head of the IC and reserving the leadership role of the CIA for the Deputy Director of Central Intelligence. He also instituted other changes consistent with his report, reorganizing and strengthening the Directorate of Science and Technology and cutting personnel in the Directorate of Operations.

President Nixon nominated William Colby to succeed Schlesinger as DCI on May 10, 1973. Colby would serve as DCI through the remainder of Nixon’s time in office, and would continue to serve President Gerald Ford. The Vietnam War was a major area of focus for Colby during the remainder of Nixon’s presidency, and the Agency continued to brief the administration through Kissinger, who was now the National Security Advisor.



Continuing a presidential tradition, Nixon wrote a note praising the men and women of the CIA. The following words from our 37th President are on display at CIA Headquarters:

“To the Central Intelligence Agency, a vital aid in the defense of freedom.”


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Posted: Feb 23, 2012 02:16 PM
Last Updated: Apr 30, 2013 12:57 PM