CIA’s Frank Assessments of African Leaders Revealed in New Research

9-13-1983 President Reagan meeting Prime Minister Mugabe of Zimbabwe in the oval office
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A recent research paper has shed light on the candid assessments made by the CIA of African leaders, prepared for US presidents ahead of their meetings.

These profiles included descriptions of leaders as “highly emotional,” prone to “erratic personal behavior,” or possessing “impressive intellectual and political skills.”

While we have yet to see what the CIA thinks of contemporary figures like Kenyan President William Ruto, the agency has a long history of analyzing African heads of state for US officials. According to Judd Devermont, a former White House Africa director and now a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the CIA has produced “visit pieces” for decades. These documents provided detailed profiles of foreign leaders, exploring their personalities and political aspirations, particularly during the Cold War.

Devermont’s research, based on declassified CIA documents from 1961 to 1987, reveals the depth of these briefings. The visit pieces were crucial for US presidents to understand the geopolitical views of these leaders and how they navigated the East-West divide.

For instance, when Kenyan President William Ruto visited the US recently, President Joe Biden received an array of preparatory materials, including talking points, draft statements, and dinner menus. Among these was a visit piece from the CIA, either as a standalone document or integrated into the President’s Daily Brief.

Historical profiles highlight the varied characterizations of African leaders. Senegal’s founding leader, Leopold Sedar Senghor, who visited the US six times between 1961 and 1980, was described in 1978 as having “an impressive blend of intellectual and political skills” and being equally at ease in French and African cultures. Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie was noted for his “unusual personal vigor and determination,” while Zambia’s founding president, Kenneth Kaunda, was deemed “highly emotional.”

Other notable profiles include Mozambique’s Samora Machel, described as “given to dominating conversation” in 1973, and Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), who was troubled by his image as a US ally. Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe’s profile ahead of his 1983 meeting with Ronald Reagan highlighted his “close relations” with communist nations and his sensitivity to Western criticism.

Devermont argues that while these visit pieces were sometimes accurate, they could also mislead US presidents. In the 1980s, for example, the CIA failed to grasp that President Reagan was interested in whether African leaders supported free enterprise, focusing instead on other aspects of their profiles.

Looking ahead, Devermont suggests that artificial intelligence could enhance the CIA’s capabilities, allowing for more comprehensive profiles that include entire delegations and big data analysis, such as national budgets, to provide a fuller picture.

This research underscores the importance of understanding the personal and political nuances of foreign leaders, a task the CIA has undertaken with varying degrees of success over the decades.