The Central Intelligence Agency

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The Central Intelligence Agency, (CIA) was created by Congress in the National Security Act of 1947, recognizing strategic intelligence as a first line of defense and a crucial instrument in warfare. The attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 had demonstrated the need to gather and coordinate intelligence information. Significantly, the CIA was created the year President Harry S. Truman announced the containment doctrine at the beginning of the Cold War.

Truman abolished the wartime Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in 1945, transferring some of its intelligence‐gathering functions to the State Department and the army and some to a new Central Intelligence Group, created in January 1946. The CIA was established by Congress, not the president, and as an independent agency; the director (DCI) would report directly to the president. It operated under the National Security Council (NSC), a newly established presidential advisory board, and had legal access to the intelligence information of all other civilian and military agencies.

Concerns about an all‐powerful secret police spying on Americans led Congress to prohibit the CIA from “police, subpoena, law enforcement powers or internal‐security” functions. Domestic counterintelligence was to remain the preserve of the FBI.

The CIA's leaders, many of them former OSS officers, quickly became involved in bureaucratic struggles over jurisdiction and resources with nearly a dozen other military and civilian agencies, and the State Department required that the CIA's overseas personnel come under the jurisdiction of the U.S. ambassador in that country. The first DCI, Rear Adm. Roscoe H. Hillenkoetter (1947–50), lacked influence. Under his successors, Army Gen. Walter Bedell Smith (1950–53) and Allen Welsh Dulles (1953–61), the CIA became a powerful agency. Yet it never achieved anywhere near total control over U.S. intelligence policy because too many other departments retained their own sources of intelligence, especially those under the secretary of defense.

The 1947 National Security Act authorized the CIA to collect, correlate, and evaluate intelligence relating to national security, and to disseminate that information to appropriate agencies within the government. It was also authorized to perform “other functions and duties related to intelligence affecting the national security.” Although the agency's charter did not mention “espionage,” “counterespionage,” or “covert action,” the broad language became the source for later expansion of the CIA's activities.

Within a year, the agency—often called “the company” by its personnel—had expanded its roles under NSC directives to include covert activities. These included secret psychological warfare as well as undercover political, economic, and paramilitary operations overseas. Originally, most of these anti‐Communist operations were in Europe, designed to be secret and planned and executed in such a way that the U.S. government could “plausibly disclaim any responsibility for them.”

In large part because of such clandestine operations Congress amended the statute (1949) to permit the CIA to receive funds secretly under budget cover of other federal agencies. Under the so‐called black budget, the director was given extraordinary authority to spend money and to impose absolute secrecy for sources and methods. The justification was to prevent foreign governments from learning the scope of the CIA's activities, but this secrecy also protected the CIA from domestic budgetary and accounting agencies.

The Korean War, and the massive national security buildup that accompanied it, led to a huge expansion of the CIA. The U.S. intelligence community's failure to anticipate the North Korean invasion of South Korea, like the Pearl Harbor attack, demonstrated the failure of intelligence gathering and coordination of information. The CIA was finally given access to military signals intelligence, and Truman replaced Hillenkoetter with Smith (1953), who had been Eisenhower's chief of staff during World War II. With increased funding and mandate, Smith largely created the CIA in its modern form. By 1953, the agency had more than 10,000 employees, including nearly 3,000 in the Office of Policy Coordination (which ran the covert operations), and more than 3,000 additional personnel serving overseas. Headquarters were moved to Langley, Virginia, in 1963.

Allen Dulles, former OSS officer, deputy director, and brother of Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, was the first civilian to head the CIA; under his leadership, the agency reached a peak strength of 18,000. The CIA created and ran Radio Liberty and Radio Free Europe as propaganda services beamed at Eastern Europe and the USSR.

NSC directives in the 1950s expanded the agency's covert operations, which came to overshadow information‐gathering functions. While covert actions by def inition remained secret and presidents were given plausible deniability, secrecy was undermined in major cases when its coups achieved success, for example, Iran (1953) and Guatemala (1954). Most of the public controversy about the CIA involved covert foreign interventions where policy as well as secrecy failed, especially the Bay of Pigs invasion (1961). Although photo reconnaissance increased dramatically in the 1950s with the high‐flying U‐2 “spy” planes, the agency and the Eisenhower administration were publicly embarrassed when a plane was shot down over the USSR in May 1960 and the pilot captured. The public came to know of many intelligence failures, too, most dramatically the failure to predict the onset of the Korean War.

Dulles was replaced by John A. McCone (1961–65), a former chair of the Atomic Energy Commission, who shifted emphasis from covert operations to intelligence gathering and analysis. Through human intelligence gathering (HUMINT) by a Soviet military officer, Col. Oleg Penkovsky, and photoimage intelligence (IMINT) U‐2 flights over Cuba, the CIA learned in 1962 about Soviet missile technology and the deployment of nuclear‐tipped, medium‐range missiles in Cuba. The agency continued its covert operations, for example in a successful coup in Guyana in the early 1960s.

The CIA was hard hit during the Vietnam War. Pessimistic about conventional forces winning a guerrilla war, its own covert and counterintelligence operations in Southeast Asia became increasingly controversial. President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed Vice Adm. William F. Raborn, Jr. (ret.) as DCI, but he was soon replaced by Richard M. Helms (1966–73), the first career intelligence officer to head the agency. Neither Johnson nor President Richard M. Nixon paid much attention to intelligence reports that contradicted their views, and Nixon and his NSC adviser, Henry Kissinger, tended to fashion their own intelligence estimates.

In the 1970s, in the wake of Watergate and Vietnam, the media and Congress launched major investigations into illegal or inappropriate activities by the CIA. These revealed that under orders from the Johnson and Nixon administrations, the CIA had violated its charter through surveillance (Operation Chaos) of domestic opponents of the Vietnam War, and that some U.S. intelligence officials had been involved in programs since the early 1960s to assassinate Communist leaders, most prominently Fidel Castro and the Congo's Patrice Lumumba.

Such revelations, especially by the investigating committee headed by Senator Frank Church, contributed to calls for abolition of the agency. Instead, the investigation precipitated reforms begun under DCIs James R. Schlesinger, William E. Colby, and George Bush. Assassination plots in peacetime were prohibited by executive order (1975) by President Gerald Ford, who also created an Intelligence Oversight Board and reinvigorated the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. In 1976–77, Congress created permanent intelligence committees in both houses to oversee all aspect of intelligence. President Jimmy Carter appointed Adm. Stanfield Turner, an active duty naval officer, as DCI (1977–81); under Turner, the agency shrank by more than one‐third of its peak size.

With the U.S. defense buildup that began in 1980, and especially under President Ronald Reagan and his first director, William J. Casey (1981–87)—a former OSS station chief, successful lawyer, and Reagan's 1980 campaign manager—the CIA was “unleashed,” its budget increased and clandestine operations reemphasized, especially in Afghanistan, Angola, and Nicaragua. The Intelligence Reform Act (1980) freed the CIA from earlier restraints: although presidential approval of covert operations was required, in “extraordinary circumstances” congressional oversight committees might be notified only later. New photo and satellite imagery and signals/communications intelligence (SIGINT) increased U.S. information on Soviet military capability. But tensions over covert op erations grew between the Republican president and the Democratic Congress, culminating in the Iran‐Contra Affair (1986), which revealed that the CIA had violated congressional restraints. Following Casey's death, FBI director William H. Webster became DCI (1987–91). The Intelligence Authorization Acts (1991, 1992) tightened legislative oversight and required prior notice for all covert actions.

With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, which the agency had failed to predict, fundamental questions were raised about the future of the CIA, widely perceived as a Cold War institution. The agency's reputation was further hurt when CIA officer Aldrich H. Ames was exposed (1994) as a “mole” who had sold secrets to the Soviets for nearly a decade, causing the deaths of a dozen foreign agents. In 1997 a former CIA station chief, Harold Nicholson, was convicted of spying for Russia.

Robert Gates, R. James Woolsey, Jr., John M. Deutch, and George J. Tenet sought to find new roles for the CIA, especially technological surveillance for economic and ecological as well as security purposes, and monitoring drug traffic and terrorist threats. At century's end the future of the CIA remained uncertain.
[See also Intelligence, Military and Political; Pentagon, The.]


U.S. Senate, 94th Congress, Select Committee (Church Committee) to Study Government Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities , Hearings and Reports, 1975–76.
Anne Karalekas , History of the Central Intelligence Agency, 1977.
Harry Rositzke , The CIA's Secret Operations: Espionage, Counterespionage, and Cover Action, 1977.
Robert M. Gates , From the Shadows: The Ultimate Insider's Story of Five Presidents and How They Won the Cold War, 1996.
Loch K. Johnson , Secret Agencies: U.S. Intelligence in a Hostile World, 1996.
Commission on the Roles and Capabilities of the U.S. Intelligence Community , Report, “Preparing for the 21st Century: An Appraisal of the U.S. Intelligence Community,” 1996.

Harry Howe Ransom

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The Central Intelligence Agency

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