Say what you will about President Harry Truman, but at least he didn’t leave the White House a suspiciously rich man.
He also actually went home, to Independence Missouri, and moved into a modest house he didn’t own. It was the same house belonging to his wife’s family where he had lived with Bess (and his mother-in-law!) decades earlier.
Flat broke, and unwilling to accept corporate board positions or commercial endorsements, Truman sought a much-needed loan from a local Missouri bank. For several years his sole income was a $113 monthly Army pension, and only the sale of a parcel of land he inherited with his siblings prevented him from nearly “being on relief,” as Truman allegedly stated. In the 1950s, perhaps almost entirely to alleviate Truman’s embarrassing financial situation, Congress authorized a $25,000 yearly pension for ex-presidents Truman and the much-wealthier Herbert Hoover.
Contrast this with the luxe post-presidential life of the Reagans in Bel Air, or the still-unfolding saga of the Obama’s jet-setting life between Kalorama, Palm Springs, and Oahu!
But even if Truman’s homespun honesty and common man persona sometime wore thin, he deserves enormous credit for the startling admission that he regretted creating the CIA. Speaking to a biographer in the 1960s, less than 20 years after signing the National Security Act of 1947, Truman expressed a sense of foreboding about what the agency had become, and would become:
Merle Miller: Mr. President, I know that you were responsible as President for setting up the CIA. How do you feel about it now?
Truman: I think it was a mistake. And if I’d know what was going to happen, I never would have done it.
This is decidedly not the kind of thing ex-presidents usually say. We won’t expect George W. Bush to announce his regrets over invading Iraq anytime soon. But Truman’s instincts were right, even if he couldn’t have imagined what the CIA and the entire Deep State nexus would become. In Truman’s era, spying and subterfuge were physical endeavors, involving skilled agents and analog technology. Today the covert arts don’t require James Bond, but instead a trained technician who can pull information from a server farm.
The digital revolution gives modern intelligence agencies vastly more power than they had during the Cold War spy days: they simply access existing metadata, from whatever source, rather than collect it in real time. And intelligence gathering is not just a supplementary form of warfare waged against hostile foreign governments, but also a domestic political tool that allows Deep State actors to strike at civilian and political targets. As Mr. Trump has discovered, the “strike” can consist of a coordinated media attacks, leaks from trusted officials, and even bizarre triangulations aimed at pinning his election on Vladimir Putin.
One justification Truman provides for his action is the old bureaucratic unicorn known as “consolidation,” which is often promised by politicians but never delivered. When then-congressman Ron Paul and his staff furiously argued against the creation of the Department of Homeland Security in 2002, GOP congressional leaders assured us that an entirely new department would actually consolidate several different agencies and functions. “It will save money!”, they told us, to bring all of these disparate federal employees under one efficient umbrella. Fast forward to 2017, and DHS is just another failed department with a thousand-page, $42 billion annual budget.
But Truman apparently bought into the consolidation argument:
Truman: the President needed at that time a central organization that would bring all the various intelligence reports we were getting in those days, and there must have been a dozen of them, maybe more, bring them all into one organization so that the President would get one report on what was going on in various parts of the world. Now that made sense, and that’s why I went ahead and set up what they called the Central Intelligence Agency.
Unfortunately it is only in hindsight that Truman came to see the “Iron Law of Oligarchy” at work, which posits that all organizations– particularly government bureaucracies– eventually fall under the control of an elite few. That elite, he came to understand, did not include the president or his cabinet:
Truman: But it got out of hand. The fella … the one that was in the White House after me never paid any attention to it, and it got out of hand. Why, they’ve got an organization over there in Virginia now that is practically the equal of the Pentagon in many ways. And I think I’ve told you, one Pentagon is one too many.
Now, as nearly as I can make out, those fellows in the CIA don’t just report on wars and the like, they go out and make their own, and there’s nobody to keep track of what they’re up to. They spend billions of dollars on stirring up trouble so they’ll have something to report on. They’ve become … it’s become a government all of its own and all secret. They don’t have to account to anybody.
That’s a very dangerous thing in a democratic society, and it’s got to be put a stop to. The people have got a right to know what those birds are up to. And if I was back in the White House, people would know. You see, the way a free government works, there’s got to be a housecleaning every now and again, and I don’t care what branch of the government is involved. Somebody has to keep an eye on things.
And when you can’t do any housecleaning because everything that goes on is a damn secret, why, then we’re on our way to something the Founding Fathers didn’t have in mind. Secrecy and a free, democratic government don’t mix. And if what happened at the Bay of Pigs doesn’t prove that, I don’t know what does. You have got to keep an eye on the military at all times, and it doesn’t matter whether it’s the birds in the Pentagon or the birds in the CIA.
This is a remarkable statement by Truman, even if delivered during a relatively unguarded moment with a trusted biographer. It shows a humility and willingness to admit grave error that is lacking in public life today. It also stands on its own as a inadvertent libertarian argument against state power itself.
Did Truman stand by his statements about the CIA? Yes and no. Speaking to Esquire in 1971, he continued to praise the agency as a needed consolidation:
When I took over the Presidency he received information from just about everywhere, from the Secretary of State and the State Department, the Treasury Department, the Department of Agriculture. Just everybody. And sometimes they didn’t agree as to what was happening in various parts of the world. So I got couple of admirals together, and they formed the Central Intelligence Agency for the benefit and convenience of the President of the United States . . . So instead of the President having to look through a bunch of papers two feet high, the information was coordinated so that the President could arrive at the facts. It’s still going, and it’s going very well.
Hypocritical backpedaling on Truman’s part? Perhaps. But his biographer Merle Miller calls the Esquire quote “pretty faint praise,” and more importantly Truman never ordered the removal of his brief chapter on the CIA from the Plain Speaking biography. His mea culpa still stands, in print. So while he could not have fully imagined what the CIA would become, he knew in his gut he had made a terrible mistake– a mistake we are only beginning to understand today thanks to WikiLeaks.
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