Getting to Know the President

Title:                      Getting to Know the President

Author:                  John L. Helgerson

Helgerson, John L. (1996, 2004). Getting to Know the President: CIA Briefings of Presidential Candidates, 1952-1992. Washington, DC: Center for Study of Intelligence, CIA

LCCN:    96231326

E840.6 .H45 1996


Date Updated:  November 9, 2015

2012 edition, Reviewed by Hayden Peake[1]

Ten days after the 1992 presidential election, John Helgerson, then serving as deputy director for intelligence at the CIA, briefed President-elect Clinton and his staff on the President’s Daily Brief (PDB) and other intelligence matters. While preparing for the briefing, Helgerson discovered that the “CIA had provided preinaugural support to all eight presidents elected since the Agency was founded but had no systematic records of those efforts.” (p. 3) After reviewing what material was available, Helgerson determined to create a record of past briefings and make sure detailed records were kept in the future. Drawing on these data in the mid-1990s, Helgerson wrote a summary of the arrangements made with and the general topics briefed to all the presidents-and some candidates-from Truman through Clinton. Thatwork was published in 1996 as Getting to Know the President: CIA Briefings of Presidential Candidates, 1952-1992.[2] The present work updates that edition to include the George W. Bush administration.

President Truman originated the briefings because, as he recalled, “there were so many things I did not know when I became President.” (p. 10) Helgerson describes the Eisenhower briefings, some given by the DCI, Gen. Walter Smith, who had been Ike’s wartime chief of staff. Helgerson doesn’t include much on the substance of the briefings, but there is a good deal on the atmosphere and the effort to establish a sound relationship. He takes this approach throughout the book, showing how each president and vice president viewed intelligence and the need for briefings differently. Some wanted direct contact with the CIA’s briefer, as was the case with George W. Bush. Others—Carter and Reagan, for example—preferred to read the material in private or be briefed by the national security advisor. In any case, the agency had to accommodate these varying desires and the challenges of time and travel.

From the CIA’s perspective, an ancillary purpose of the briefings was to take advantage of the opportunity to establish a relationship with the president for continued briefings. As Helgerson relates, however, the relationships with Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Carter were never what agency leaders had hoped, though each for different reasons.

In the final chapter, Helgerson presents some observations of his own and many from presidents he interviewed for the study. These add immensely to the value of the book because they include comments about the relationship between the CIA and the president when he was in office. In an overall assessment, Helgerson concludes that the relationship “went downhill after Truman” (p. 178) for the next 25 years. How and when it was improved makes interesting history.

Getting To Know The President is a historical treasure for those interested in intelligence and the presidency.

Review of the 2004 edition[3]

A look at how Agency briefers attempt to adapt their briefings to the experience, priorities and working patterns for each president. The book has been updated through 2004. A pdf version (2nd ed) is at

In the Foreword, David Robarge, Chief Historian of the CIA, said the following:

The Central Intelligence Agency is more of a presidential service organization than perhaps any other component of the US government. Since 1952, CIA, and now the Intelligence Community, have provided presidential candidates and presidents-elect with intelligence briefings during their campaigns and transitions. These briefings have helped presidents be as well informed as possible on international developments from the day they take office.

In addition to their central, substantive purpose, these briefings usually have also served as the IC’s introduction to the “First Customer,” the individual who, more than any other, determines what place intelligence will have in the national security hierarchy. They have been crucial in giving an early sense of the personalities of the candidates and presidents-elect, their knowledge of world affairs, and their views of how intelligence and the IC can best support national security decisionmaking.

Getting To Know the President by John Helgerson makes a singular contribution to the literature of intelligence by describing this important process of information sharing between the IC and the chief executive. First published in 1996 and now revised and updated to include accounts of intelligence support to candidates and presidents-elect in the three elections between then and 2004, Helgerson’s study provides unique insights into the mechanics and content of the briefings, the interaction of the participants, and the briefings’ effect on the relationships presidents have had with their intelligence services. His observations on how and what to brief during the campaign and transition periods are essential reading for members of the community charged with that responsibility in the future and seeking to learn from the best practices of their predecessors.

In his 1996 foreword to the first edition of this book, Christopher Andrew took note of the “simple but important fact that each president is different.” From that point flows another explanation for this second edition. Prepared then, as now, under the sponsorship of the Center for the Study of Intelligence, this work reflects CSI’s and the CIA’s commitment to the examination, and continual reexamination, of the profess ion of intelligence in the United States. This effort has been manifest in products of many kinds, unclassified and classified, with many of the latter eventually released wholly or in part to the public. As with other dimensions of the IC’s and CIA’s work, service to policymakers and presidents demands both the scrutiny of today’s practitioners of intelligence and the perspective of historians to follow. While this book is primarily intended to serve those who must consider the IC’s role in a presidential election year, it is also hoped that it will help illuminate as much as possible for others the nature of CIA and IC service to past presidents, while at the same time keeping faith with the essential confidentiality to which sitting presidents are entitled.

[1] Peake, Hayden B. in The Intelligencer: Journal of U. S. Intelligence Studies (20, 1, Spring/Summer 2013, p. 115 ). Hayden Peake is the Curator of the CIA’s Historical Intelligence Collection. He has served in the Directorate of Science and Technology and the Directorate of Operations. Most of these reviews appeared in recent unclassified editions of CIA’s Studies in Intelligence. These and many other reviews and articles may be found on line at

[2] John L. Helgerson, Getting to Know the President: CIA Briefings of Presidential Candidates, 1952-1992 (Center for the Study of Intelligence, CIA, 1996). This publication is available online from the Center for the Study of Intelligence at Downloaded November 9, 2015

[3] On the CIA website: Getting to Know the President: CIA Briefings of Presidential Candidates, 1952-1992. Downloaded November 9, 2015


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3 Responses to Getting to Know the President

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