John F. Kennedy was the 35th President of the United States, a position he held from 1961 until his assassination in November 1963. Kennedy had a fraught relationship with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). He inherited a long-standing distrust of the CIA from his predecessor, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who had seen CIA operations as diluting the authority of the military. Kennedy had a particular concern about the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, when the CIA advised him that the Soviets were formidable in their nuclear capabilities, contravening the emerging narrative in the White House that the Soviets were weaker than was being reported.
Overview of Kennedy’s Views
Kennedy saw the CIA as unreliable, limited in its capabilities and unable to accurately assess the missiles and capabilities of the Soviets. He viewed the CIA as providing half-truths and inaccuracies. Kennedy felt that the CIA was an organization that seemed to exist in a vacuum, operating with an almost total lack of accountability to the president or his Cabinet. He also felt that the CIA could be a tool of the Soviet Union, although it is disputed whether or not Kennedy himself believed this.
Kennedy’s initial actions within the White House upon taking office suggest a deep-seated distrust of the Agency. He attempted to restructure the CIA, seeking to limit its operations, reduce it’s personnel, and limit its budget. He also began to restrict some of its overseas field activities and centralize foreign policy and intelligence decisions. Kennedy refused to share key information with the Agency and kept them informed on a need-to-know basis, and even when Intelligence was provided, he often refused to take action.
CIA Anti-Kennedy Activity
It is widely believed that the CIA had an active and insidious agenda of attempting to undermine Kennedy’s office. The Agency had allegedly planned a number of covert operations and attempts to destabilize Cuba and oust the Socialist government of Fidel Castro. These plans had been in existence since the early 1960s and some evidence suggests that by 1963, the Agency had escalated these operations.
Kennedy’s speech in June of 1963, in which he announced his intention to stop the CIA’s activities in Cuba, was seen as a direct challenge and a potential undermining of the Agency and its operations. Furthermore, Kennedy’s stance against the CIA ran counter to the desire of those giving support to the Agency’s covert operations in Cuba.
One of the most believable theories is that some elements within the Agency had conspired to take action against Kennedy, which may have contributed to his untimely death.
Kennedy’s View on the Purpose of the CIA
Kennedy felt that the primary purpose of the CIA was not in the collection of intelligence, but rather in the reporting of it and the analysis of it. He viewed the Agency as a conduit, but not the sole source of information on”the force and potential of international Communism”. Kennedy saw the CIA as a provider of intelligence, but not an authority on foreign policy or international affairs. Kennedy argued that the Agency’s primary job was not to engage in covert operations, but rather to ensure that the President and his staff had accurate information upon which to make decisions.
Kennedy believed that the CIA should be focused on intelligence gathering, and not engage in actions outside its scope of intelligence activities. Kennedy once famously said, “The acquisition of secrets should be kept within limits, and operations to collect foreign information should not be allowed to substitute for other forms of diplomacy.”
Kennedy’s views were in stark contrast to the views of many within the CIA, who saw the Agency as an independent power, capable of taking its own action and initiating foreign policy initiatives.
Kennedy’s Reorganization of the CIA
In an effort to implement his vision of the role of the CIA, Kennedy began to restructure and reorganize the Agency. He created the Executive Committee of the National Security Council (EXCOMM), which was to be the primary body to oversee the CIA’s activities. He also created a new position within the CIA, the Director of Intelligence, who would have the ability to veto any intelligence gathering operations within the Agency.
Kennedy sought to limit the powers of the CIA, and to bring it more under the control of the White House. He sought to limit the Agency’s ability to conduct covert operations, which some suspected were being used to undermine foreign governments, such as Cuba. He also sought to limit the Agency’s access to the media and the public, requiring them to clear all activities with the White House.
Kennedy’s Relationsip with the CIA After His Death
Kennedy’s assassination in November of 1963 resulted in a marked shift in the American public’s view on the role and power of the CIA. The Warren Commission, which was formed to investigate JFK’s death, determined that the CIA was not directly responsible for Kennedy’s death. However, the Commission’s report called for a dramatic reorganization of the CIA, with more stringent oversight and accountability of its activities.
In the years following Kennedy’s death, the CIA underwent significant reforms, including the creation of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. The committee was designed to review the Agency’s activities and ensure that they were being carried out in accordance with the laws of the United States.
The reorganization of the CIA brought an end to the era of lax oversight and unaccountable operations. The Agency was now under the watchful eye of the Senate, and bound by laws that afforded it limited powers and curtailed some of its activities.
Kennedy’s Attempts at Bringing the CIA Under Control
Kennedy’s concern about the Agency and its activities was at the forefront of his concerns as President. He sought to bring the Agency under his control and limit its access to the media and public. His attempt to bring the Agency under his control was resisted by some, as evidenced by his speech in June 1963 about the CIA and their actions in Cuba.
Regardless, Kennedy’s efforts to bring the CIA under his control had garnered considerable support from a majority of the American public. His attempts at limiting the powers of the Agency and holding it accountable for its actions had resulted in a significant change in the relationship between the Agency and the American public.
Analysis of Kennedy’s Views on the CIA
Kennedy’s opinion of the Agency was not uniform, as it varied based on the situation. While Kennedy saw the Agency as limited in its capabilities and prone to inaccuracy, he also believed it had the potential to be a tool of the United States, providing intelligence on matters of international affairs and foreign policy.
Kennedy believed that the Agency should be kept under strict control, with its activities monitored, reviewed, and held accountable to the highest level of government. His speech in June 1963 was the clearest indication of his desire to keep the Agency in check; a desire that had garnered the support of much of the American public.
Criticism of Kennedy’s Views on the CIA
Despite Kennedy’s attempts at bringing the CIA in line with his views, some had criticized his actions. His critics argued that Kennedy’s actions did not go far enough, and that his attempted reorganization of the Agency still did not address some of the more contentious issues that had been a problem with the Agency in the past.
Kennedy’s critics also point to the failure of his administration to take concrete steps to limit the Agency’s powers, such as preventing them from engaging in covert operations in Cuba, which Kennedy had emphatically denounced. Furthermore, some have questioned Kennedy’s commitment to reining in the Agency, as evidenced by the lack of substantial evidence of his actually doing so.
Conclusion of Kennedy’s Legacy
It is difficult to accurately assess the level of influence that Kennedy’s attempts at controlling the CIA had on the Agency’s operations. It can be argued that his efforts were successful in changing the public’s perception of the Agency, as evidenced by the passage of the laws limiting their powers and activities.
It can be said with certainty that the relationships between the White House and the CIA changed substantially due to Kennedy’s actions. His desire to bring the Agency under his control and ensure its actions were in line with the laws of the United States was upheld by his successors, and still remains an important part of the dynamic between the two today.