Yesterday, we didn’t just lose a President and a war hero, we lost an incredible American that served our country his entire life in so many fascinating ways. He was the embodiment of a patriot volunteer, someone who raises their hand for the tough jobs because they know that it needs to be done right. In his career as a public servant, George Bush’s willingness to step into what at the time was a Central Intelligence Agency in freefall was probably the best embodiment of this trait.
The time that Bush took the reigns as Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) was so dismal for the CIA that some were questioning if it would even survive, and if so, in what form. The CIA has a page describing the providence Bush brought to the beleaguered institution, it states in part:
An Agency on the Brink
The turbulent 1970s came to be known as the “time of troubles” for the CIA. Six different DCIs served within a ten-year timeframe, and the Agency was shrouded in controversy from the Vietnam War and covert action programs leaked to the press.
By far the most devastating and consequential leak involved the “Family Jewels,” a list compiled for DCI James Schlesinger detailing controversial and, in some cases, illegal activities undertaken by the Agency. By December of 1974, the list had ended up in the hands of investigative journalist Seymour Hersh.
President Gerald R. Ford sought to quell public and congressional concern by establishing a blue-ribbon commission led by Vice President Nelson Rockefeller to investigate any domestic espionage by the Agency.
Congressional committees led by Representative Otis Pike and Senator Frank Church were formed in early 1975 and aimed to expunge the questionable activities of the CIA in the 1970s. Church referred to the CIA as a “rogue elephant,” claiming it was unsupervised and designed to tell the President what he wanted to hear.
Neither committee discovered evidence capable of destroying the Agency, although the hearings decimated the public image of the CIA and the pride of its employees.
As the committees continued their investigations into late 1975, the Ford Administration had come to feel that then-DCI William Colby had disclosed more information to Congress than was necessary. This belief, coupled with the harsh reality that a dark cloud now hung over the CIA, led the President to conclude the Agency needed a new sense of morale and a new director who could improve strained relations with Congress. On January 30, 1976, Ford replaced Colby with George H.W. Bush.
With the CIA having acquired the public image as a major source of America’s problems, not a solution to them, there were clearly a slew of systemic issues that would have to be solved the hard way in order for The Agency to survive. But who would want such a job? Fixing any sprawling government institution is an extremely perilous task with very questionable chances of success, but doing so with an agency that trades in secrecy, dabbles in assassination and insurrection, and uses secrets as leverage is a whole other untamed animal altogether.
Bush who was quickly climbing the political ladder, saw the job as DCI as a political dead-end and fraught with pitfalls, but he clearly didn’t value the risk to his career or political aspirations enough to be an impediment to taking on such a dubious and important challenge.
George H.W. Bush was sworn-in at DCI on January 30, 1976. He was the ultimate outsider in the ultimate insider’s agency. But what was remarkable is that his outgoing personality and openness to hearing out and understanding the problems CIA personnel were facing quickly tore down any artificial barriers put up between the rank and file and what was, in reality, a ‘turnaround guy.’
The job quickly went from a reluctant duty to a labor of love. He was fascinated by the camaraderie, secrecy, the creativity, the technology, and everything else that went with working at the CIA. Bush quickly educated himself on all the ins-and-outs of ongoing CIA operations and the critical intelligence products that The Agency was furnishing the military and government decision makers on a daily basis. He wasn’t just a ‘big picture’ executive, he was also an intelligence officer, personally editing important briefs to the National Security Council, and oftentimes presenting them in person so that he could convey his analysis and emphasize key points.
He would also bring officers from Langley to brief White House higher-ups and even the President directly, which was a huge change from the more rigid divisions between the CIA rank and file and the Executive Branch in the past. This alone elevated morale at The Agency by instilling a sense that the work individuals do there really mattered and influenced policymaking at the highest levels and often in near-real time.
President Ford and DCI Bush at Langley.
Presidential orders that created a new oversight regime and limitations on the CIA’s ability to spy domestically—hard pills to swallow for a spy institution that had run with far fewer strings attached for decades—were also embraced and implemented by Bush.
The horrid relationship between the Legislative Branch and the CIA was also a target for Bush to fix. Having been a Congressman himself he had unique insights into the mechanics of the House and Senate and the personalities and preconceived perceptions at play there. With this in mind, he set out to lay the foundation for a robust relationship between The Agency and both houses of Congress. He targeted key power players on The Hill and worked personally to change their perceptions of the CIA and eventually how Congress interacted and oversaw the activities at the spy agency.
This work helped spur the creation of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Under this new oversight regime, 15 senators from both sides of the aisle would be briefed on the CIA’s activities and oversee the budgets of the entire intelligence community with the help of a broader picture of its challenges and goals. This was a huge departure from the past when it came to invasive oversight of the CIA and was intrinsic in slowly dissolving the bitterness between America’s elected representation in Washington and the shadowy intelligence community.
DCI Bush talking with President Ford in the Oval Office.
Bush also made himself available to Congress in a downright relentless manner. He sat and testified to Congress fifty-one times in his year in office, a record that remains unmatched to this very day. Looking back, such an effort is an outstanding example of extreme damage control on an executive level and ushered in a new era of openness between the two government bodies. In effect, it drastically lowered Congress’s hostilities towards the CIA that had been mounting for years prior and fostered an entirely new level of understanding of what the The Agency did, how they did it, and why.
In the end, amazingly, Bush possessed the very rare ability to walk the tightrope between being the CIA biggest cheerleader and supporting its corps of dedicated public servants internally while also catalyzing and embracing dramatic change externally. But above all else, he loved the CIA, its people, and its mission. He knew that what it did was absolutely vital to the nation’s survival.
He briefed Jimmy Carter directly on intelligence matters during the election. But once Carter he won, although he liked Bush, he decided that keeping him would not be the right choice politically. This turned out to be a great thing. If he had stayed on as DCI he would not have run against Reagan in 1980, and in losing that fight, become the Vice President and eventually the President. It is also very unlikely his son would have been elected President in 2000, either.
Upon leaving the CIA, whose image had morphed dramatically over the short time he had been in charge there, Bush stated the following during his farewell address:
“I take with me many happy memories. Even the tough, unresolved problems don’t seem so awesome; for they are overshadowed by our successes and by the fact that we do provide the best foreign intelligence in the world. I hope I can find some ways in the years ahead to make the American people understand more fully the greatness that is CIA.”
This is just a brief overview of Bush’s long-lasting impact on The Agency that came when it needed it desperately, but the videos below give a much deeper view of the struggles and brilliance that marked his time there. I highly recommend you watch them in full.
And yes, everything and everyone in life, and especially when it comes to espionage and intelligence collection, is a mixed bag. Bush’s work at The Agency doesn’t miraculously break this law. But overall and against great odds, he really did get the CIA back on a survivable track that would allow it to be in a good position to confront on the challenges faced during the final period of the Cold War.
On a final note, it is often mentioned that of any American, President George H.W. Bush would probably know more of the nation’s secrets than anyone else. That is probably accurate conjecture, with Dick Cheney being another contender. But George Bush was uniquely set up to carry those secrets to the end, his demeanor and a deep sense of service to his country were contributing factors, but also his time as a Bonesman at Yale can’t be discounted either.
George H.W. Bush did so many things in his life that any single one of his accomplishments would be big enough to define any other man, but for him, it’s just one of a “thousand points of light” that made up maybe one of the most impressive resumes in American history. Although turning around the CIA is often a footnote in his story, it really was an amazing undertaking and its positive repercussions are still felt to this very day.
Director Brennan talks to President Bush at the Memorial Star Wall—hallowed ground at Langley—in 2016. CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia was officially renamed the George Bush Center for Intelligence in 1999.
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