Thirteen years before becoming the President of the United States, George H.W. Bush served as the 11th Director of Central Intelligence (DCI). Many believed leading the CIA would mark an end to his political career. Instead, Bush became the only US president to have previously held the position of DCI, which gave him a unique perspective on both providing and receiving intelligence.
Bush joined the Agency at a tumultuous time when morale was at an all-time low. He believed strongly in the mission of the Agency, and he believed in the CIA officers serving their nation. As DCI he immediately established himself as a leader who restored the morale and reputation of the CIA.
Time of Troubles
The 1970s came to be known as the “time of troubles” for the CIA. Six different DCIs served within a ten-year timeframe. The Agency was shrouded in controversy from the leak of the “Family Jewels,” an internal report detailing controversial activities undertaken by the Agency dating back to President Dwight Eisenhower’s administration.
Congressional committees led by Representative Otis Pike and Senator Frank Church were formed in early 1975 to determine “the extent, if any, to which illegal, improper, or unethical activities were engaged in by any agency of the Federal Government.” The leak of the Family Jewels coupled with the investigations tainted the public image of the CIA and plummeted the morale of Agency officers.
The Church Committee’s investigative work ultimately led to reform efforts throughout the intelligence community. However, a dark cloud now hung over the CIA. The Ford Administration concluded that the Agency needed a new sense of purpose and a new director who could improve relations with Congress.
As a decorated naval pilot, Texas Congressman, National Chairman of the Republican National Committee, Ambassador to the UN, and Special Envoy to China, George H. W. Bush had established a reputation as a strong leader with an impressive resume. On January 30, 1976, George H.W. Bush was sworn in Director of Central Intelligence. Bush’s tenure as DCI marked a turning point for the Agency as he led the CIA out of its period of darkness. He restored focus and boosted morale, quickly connecting with CIA’s workforce. Agency personnel were impressed with his friendly and outgoing persona. The new director was enthusiastic to meet CIA officers and was always interested in hearing their ideas and opinions.
Fun Fact: George H.W. Bush was one of eight left-handed presidents, but as far as we know, he was the only “southpaw” Director of Central Intelligence.
As one important goal of his directorship, Bush sought to improve relations between the Agency and Capitol Hill. Being a former member of the House of Representatives, Bush had the ideal background for reconciling the hostility between the two organizations. One clever strategy he employed was arranging a series of dinners at his home, which were attended by CIA officers and Senator Church.
The challenge of repairing relations coincided with efforts to expand the role of Congress in overseeing the CIA. In July 1976, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence went into operation; intended to provide vigilant legislative oversight over the intelligence activities of the United States.
Bush embraced the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and soon thereafter gave its members a comprehensive briefing of CIA covert action programs. Agency officials also educated the committee members about intelligence collection and production. Bush himself testified before Congress on 51 separate occasions during his year in office, setting a record no other DCI matched.
Inside the Oval
When Bush became DCI, he insisted upon direct access to President Ford. He usually edited the President’s Daily Brief or briefed at National Security Council meetings in order to convey CIA’s analysis directly to the President.
Ford frequently included Bush in high-level meetings. For their regular briefings, Bush brought Agency officers to meet and brief Ford, a tactic that impressed the President and contributed to the morale boost at Langley.
In 1976, when then-Governor Jimmy Carter was elected president, DCI Bush called and offered his resignation. Carter accepted Bush’s resignation on January 10, 1977, the day of the Presidential Inauguration.
Although Carter was pleased with reforms made at the CIA, Bush’s ties to the Republican Party made him too political to be retained by the Carter Administration. Carter eventually selected Navy Admiral Stansfield Turner to be the next DCI.
The Number One Consumer
In 1981, Bush became President Ronald Reagan’s vice president. He brought with him a deep appreciation for the President’s Daily Brief (PDB) and read it avidly throughout his vice presidency. When Bush became the 41st President of the United States in 1989, he made a CIA briefing his first order of daily business in the Oval Office. “The reason I like to get intelligence from you folks is that I know you tell it like you see it,” he said. “You have no policy axe to grind and you are absolutely discreet.”
George H.W. Bush served as Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) from January 1976 to January 1977, just ten days shy of one full year. Though his tenure was limited, his accomplishments were many, and we are grateful to have served under his leadership.