Jeff Stein: Jimmy Carter's Frosty Meeting With Spy Chief Bush

In light of CIA Director Michael V. Hayden's virtual plea to be kept on in the Obama administration, it's interesting to look back at a similar instance in 1976, when George H.W. Bush tried to get President-elect Jimmy Carter to retain him as his spy chief.

Carter loved the CIA briefings he had been getting during his campaign against President Gerald R. Ford, according to the agency's official history of presidential transitions.

Sometimes the sessions, which usually took place at his modest home in Plains, Ga., went on for six hours.

"Carter was a very careful and interested listener and an active participant," writes longtime CIA official John L. Helgerson, the study's author.

"All who were present remember that he asked a great many questions, often in minute detail. He was especially interested in the nature of the Intelligence Community's evidence, including satellite photography of deployed Soviet weapons."

Later, after winning the election, Carter "seemed to enjoy and benefit from the substantive discussions held at Blair House during his visits to Washington in the transition period."

Not so, though, when Bush, a future president himself, came to Plains looking to keep his job as DCI.

Carter was cold, Helgerson writes.

"Carter was unambiguous in his response after Bush finished his discussion of the pros and cons of his staying on as Director. The DCI had finished with an observation that -- all things considered -- he probably should be replaced. The President-elect, according to Bush, 'simply said, okay, or something like this, with no discussion, no questions about any of the points I had made.... As in the rest of the briefing, Carter was very cold or cool, no editorializing, no niceties, very business-like."

During their talk, Bush described "more than a dozen sensitive CIA programs and issues" for Carter, the CIA history says.

In contrast to the lively sessions he'd been having with his regular CIA briefers, "Carter had virtually no comment and asked no questions during the whole session" with Bush, the CIA history says.

"He had not indicated whether he thought the operations were good or bad, or that he was surprised or not surprised. He asked for no follow-up action or information. Bush commented that Carter 'seemed a little impatient, he didn't say much but seemed to be a little turned off. He tended to moralize.'"
The former Navy submarine nuclear officer found some CIA operations not to his liking, according to the CIA history.

"In fact, Carter was 'turned off' and uncomfortable with many of the Agency's sensitive collection programs. He ordered some discontinued ..."

Carter's running mate, Minnesota Sen. Walter Mondale, tried to break the tension by complimenting Bush on his handling of the agency in the wake of a rash of revelations about CIA assassination plots and domestic spying carried out by his predecessors, "rather generously (saying) that things had gotten better since I'd been there."

But the three quickly moved on to "a discussion of the timing of the announcement of a new CIA Director-designate."...

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