Can the FBI or the CIA keep things secret from the President? Or does the FBI and the CIA always have to reveal the whole extent of the truth whenever the President is informed of something? Can they keep something secret if the President doesn't ask specifically for it? Like the President's life being in danger or that there's a mole working for Russia within the White House? I am thinking there might be exceptional cases where this is allowed, but I don't know what they are.

  • 4
    The Venona Project en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Venona_project is an example of a case where information was supplied to the president, but not the source...
    – DJohnM
    Jul 13, 2021 at 6:24
  • 2
    I think it's less of keeping secrets, and more of the President doesn't know what the President doesn't know. I'm sure there's a lot of operations that people would be honest about with the President. But if it no one asks for approval, no one will know about it unless it goes terribly wrong.
    – Issel
    Jul 13, 2021 at 14:58
  • 2
    Bernard Wooley: "So that means you need to know things even when you don't need to know them. You need to know them not because you need to know them but because you need to know whether or not you need to know. If you don't need to know, you still need to know so that you know that there is no need to know."
    – CGCampbell
    Jul 16, 2021 at 12:39
  • 1
    can or may? Jul 16, 2021 at 12:56

5 Answers 5


Different questions here.

  • The President is never told everything. The various agencies produce thousands of pages of reports each day. Briefers make the decision what the President needs to be told, hopefully by their professional judgement and not out of other concerns (e.g. what would upset the President).
  • If the President does ask, agencies like the CIA, DIA, NSA, ... have to provide a full answer (see the last paragraph of this article for presidential clearances). As chrylis mentioned in a comment, in practice the agencies could lie to the President. Wikipedia calls a deep state like this a conspiracy theory.
  • It is traditional that the President keeps a distance from the workings of the Justice Department and related agencies. At times this tradition came under stress, like the Saturday Night Massacre when President Nixon fired accepted the 'voluntary' resignation of first the Attorney General and then the Deputy Attorney General for refusing to fire a special prosecutor. Or, more recently, the Trump presidency. Just how far the ability of the President goes to break tradition is a bit of an open question.
  • 14
    "if the president does ask, agencies have to provide a full answer": citation?
    – phoog
    Jul 13, 2021 at 8:07
  • 19
    @phoog There's probably not a specific law, but the President can fire the Agency Director or Attorney General at will, could direct the heads to discipline/fire specific employees for insubordination, and could direct OMB to not allocate funds to their budget. Legally the President is also the highest classifying authority so he could start declassifying information over their objections if they were being truly non-responsive. Jul 13, 2021 at 12:36
  • 1
    @IllusiveBrian from reading Eslberg's "Doomesday Machine", it seems that both the various branches of the armed forces and the intelligence agencies routinely keep secrets from president. President can in theory replace heads of them, but he might fear a political backlash for it and instead may be forced to work with uncooperative, slow and obfuscating departments. Jul 14, 2021 at 14:11
  • 3
    @phoog It isn't a law, it's the constitution: "Article 2, Section 1: The executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America." This means that all article 2 (executive) power and authority is vested in one person: the President. Consequently no part or person of the executive can legally deny information that they have to the president, because technically all of their power to hold or deny such information is really just an extension of the President's power who has already explicitly made that decision by asking for it. Jul 14, 2021 at 14:23
  • 3
    Wikipedia calls it a Conspiracy, however do we not have prominent examples of exactly this happening (CIA et al willingly lying to the President to mislead and get a desired result) - Iraq and Weapons of Mass Destruction comes to mind.
    – SnakeDoc
    Jul 14, 2021 at 19:47

The US President can ask questions of US Government employees in the executive branch, which includes the CIA and FBI. If the employee refuses to answer then the US President can't compel an answer, since that is a judicial power. They can, of course, fire any employee who refuses a lawful direction. This firing of recalcitrant employees has notably been done by presidents Nixon (the "Saturday Night Massacre"), Reagan (every air-traffic controller), and Trump (FBI Director Comey).

The US President has no direct power over members of the judicial branch of government and no direct power over the agencies of the legislature itself.

In practice a lot of sensible government is knowing what you don't want to know. The strongest example of that is that no President wants to know the details of their employees acting covertly on international assignment, or the details of overseas' residents who may be covertly assisting the USA. One of the issues for the US agencies recruiting overseas' assistance has been that a recent US President did take an interest in such matters in the Ukraine; and the senior leadership of a previous administration leaked the name of a CIA intelligence officer to the Washington Post, which potentially placed at risk people who had contacted that officer.


Of course, they can. Even the US military have secrets.

One of the brightest examples, for me, was Edgar Hoover. A man who've stayed in power from 1935 till his death in 1972 definitely had secrets from the six presidents he overseat.

But generally, considering such situation, if things turn public, and there would be a scandal, FBI/CIA chief might be fired. But I don't remember anything more than firing a chief - all other people do stay in system.

In fact, I consider it's normal in such decentralized system as the US power system. NSA, FBI, CIA, Military, and hoard of other agencies and lobby groups - they definitely do have secrets from anyone other, including POTUS. But such behaviour is part of the system, I think.

I've hit this theme in another question some time ago.


Of course they can keep some things secret from the president. A quick example would be any investigations into the president or their administration. If there is information like that which could impact a criminal investigation they are not going to inform the target about what is going on and what they find.

As for the examples you give why would they ever hide that information from the president when it could cause massive damage to this country? Are you suggesting that the FBI or CIA want to harm/destroy the country?

Honestly why would they not inform the president if his life was in danger? Or why would they even let a known or suspected mole work in the White House?

  • 1
    Government officials are supposed to act in the best interest of the country. If they knew their life was in danger, they might make decisions to protect themselves. Or simply act irrationally out of fear (POTUS is human, after all).
    – Barmar
    Jul 13, 2021 at 12:35
  • 1
    They might let a mole continue to work so they can find out who they're reporting to.
    – Barmar
    Jul 13, 2021 at 12:36
  • 2
    @Barmar But they would never do so without letting the president and others know. It would be really bad if the president gave the mole super sensitive information because they didn't know it was a mole.
    – Joe W
    Jul 13, 2021 at 13:31
  • 2
    That comment was addressed to "Why would they even let a known or suspected mole work in the White House", not why they wouldn't tell the President about it.
    – Barmar
    Jul 13, 2021 at 13:34
  • There was a huge controversy regarding the ability to charge a President with obstruction of justice, whatever the logical outcome of that debate what authority is there for any employee of the executive branch to act independently of the executive? I don't believe that any employee of the executive branch can, legally, keep anything secret from the President -- the employees of the executive branch are not able to act independently of the executive.
    – Dave D
    Jul 15, 2021 at 4:30

I think they can especially if the President does not specifically ask for it. This can be considered a bit like lying by omission which I suppose may depend on the context of the situation. Sort of like how one cannot gain entry into the Vatican Archives to browse through records unless they specify what it is that they are looking for in particular. Not necessarily the same thing but somewhat similar. Sometimes one may not be aware of a thing that is there for one to ask about and focusing on one thing will require that attention be taken away from another. So a President would have to ask what all there may be to learn more about and if all is revealed what to do with that information. Whether or not the agency is being totally transparent is a problem to consider indeed. If there are exceptional cases one would have to ask what the sufficient reasons are for granting an exception. This cannot occur if all that is presented by them is taken at face value and knowing when something should or should not be taken as such I think is a part of the challenge overall. That is, when you should or should not trust what it is that you are given.

Now, perhaps these questions may have answers and I just have not seen them but a couple of examples where your inquiry is applicable to me at least is whether or not the President(s) knew about Project Mk-ultra at the time that the agency(ies) is purported to have conducted all of the experiments that were mentioned? What about as of recent with the claim that Jeffrey Epstein had been an asset of intelligence by Acosta? If that were indeed true did the President know and if not should they have been informed about it?

I am confident that they have lied at least once!

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .