Central Intelligence Agency, U.S.
As a U.S. senator (D-MO), Harry S. Truman was well aware of the significant loss in lives and matériel that resulted from America’s inadequate intelligence prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. During his three-month tenure as vice president and, upon becoming president when Franklin D. Roosevelt died in April 1945, Truman experienced further dissatisfaction with the lack of coordination among U.S. intelligence units throughout the remaining months of World War II. After the war, the avoidance of a future Pearl Harbor—that is, achieving reliable warning, the premier objective of intelligence—became a high priority for the Truman administration as it pursued the establishment of a modern intelligence system. Lawmakers on Capitol Hill also evoked the memory of Pearl Harbor as they debated how to prevent surprise attacks against the United States.
The Truman administration soon faced another reason for making improvements in U.S. intelligence: a sense in 1946 that the Soviet Union had emerged on the world stage as a formidable and hostile adversary. War-weary American soldiers had barely returned home from Europe and Asia when Soviet-phobia began to grip Washington, D.C., stirred by Winston Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” speech in 1946 and waves of vitriolic anti-West propaganda emanating from Moscow. As intelligence scholar Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones stated in Eternal Vigilance (1997), “past weaknesses” like Pearl Harbor served as part of the backdrop for the debate about reforming U.S. intelligence in 1946–1947, but more important were “present imperatives” (p. 23)—above all, the rise of Soviet power in the world. Just as the United States could have benefited greatly from having better indications and warning (I&W, in the intelligence acronym) about the movements of Japanese warships in 1941, so five years later did leaders in Washington seek reliable intelligence on the military capabilities and intentions of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).
One of Truman’s top aides, Clark Clifford, recalled in his memoir Counsel to the President (1991): “By early 1946, President Truman was becoming increasingly annoyed by the flood of conflicting and uncoordinated intelligence reports flowing haphazardly across his desk” (p. 166). On January 22, 1946, he signed an executive order that created a Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) and a Central Intelligence Group (CIG), with the express purpose of achieving a “correlation and evaluation of intelligence relating to the national security.” The order allowed the CIG to “centralize” research and analysis and “coordinate all foreign intelligence activities.” Truman’s original intent was, as he told biographer Merle Miller in the book Plain Speaking (1973), to avoid “having to look through a bunch of papers two feet high” and instead receive information that was “coordinated so that the President could arrive at the facts” (p. 420). In twenty-first-century terminology, he longed for the “all-source fusion” of intelligence or, in a military term, intelligence jointness.
Yet the president never saw his hope fulfilled. From the beginning the CIG proved weak. One of its primary tasks was to put together the Daily Summary, the precursor to today’s President’s Daily Brief. Yet, intelligence units in the various departments balked at handing over information to the CIG. Secretary of State James F. Byrnes, for example, refused to pass along cables from his staff overseas, maintaining that he would tell the president directly what he needed to know. In response to this intransigence, Truman weighed in on behalf of the CIG and ordered Byrnes to cooperate in the preparation of the Daily Summary. Nevertheless, departments remained resentful and often resistant to the concept of intelligence sharing. White House support for the CIG notwithstanding, putting together the Daily Summary quickly became an exercise in futility.
The administration turned toward the idea of creating a stronger organization: a Central Intelligence Agency, or CIA. It soon became clear to President Truman, however, that the acquisition of a truly centralized intelligence system would come at too steep a price, in light of an even more urgent goal the White House sought to achieve: military consolidation. World War II had been rife with conflict between the services, often interrupting the pursuit of battlefield objectives. President aide Clark Clifford reflected in his memoir on how the administration had to play down intelligence reform in favor of settling the “first order of business—the war between the Army and the Navy.” The “first priority,” he continued, “was still to get the squabbling military services together behind a unification bill.”
The creation of a Department of Defense, replacing the old Department of War, would provide a means for drawing the services closer together. The president did not wish to complicate the fight for unification by seeking, at the same time, intelligence consolidation that was bound to roil the military services as a threat to their own confederal and parochial approaches to intelligence. The one point that all the military services, as well as the Department of State and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), agreed on was that they did not want a strong central agency controlling their intelligence collection programs.
As a result, the Truman administration retreated from its goal of intelligence consolidation. The diluted language of the National Security Act of 1947 provided for only a weak DCI and a CIA that was little different from the failed CIG. As Clifford conceded, the effort fell “far short of our original intent” (p. 169). The landmark National Security Act of 1947 would mainly address the issue of military unification; intelligence was only a secondary consideration. The statute created a Central Intelligence Agency, but left the details vague on just how the new independent agency was supposed to carry out its charge to “correlate,” “evaluate,” and “disseminate” information to policymakers in light of the powerful grasp that the policy departments (like Defense and State) retained over their individual intelligence units. The law represented a delicate attempt to create a CIA that, as historian Michael Warner wrote in his study Central Intelligence (2001), would have to “steer between the two poles of centralization and departmental autonomy.” As a result, the CIA “never quite became the integrator of U.S. intelligence that its Presidential and congressional parents had envisioned” (pp. 45, 47).
The rhetoric of “intelligence coordination” expressed in the law sounded good; but the reality of bringing coordination about was a different matter altogether. Genuine integration of America’s intelligence agencies required a strong DCI, leading a truly central intelligence agency with budget and appointment powers over all the other secret agencies. In 1952 this cluster of secret agencies became known by the misnomer “the intelligence community.” In reality, they remained separated organizations (“stovepiped,” in intelligence slang) with their own powerful program directors (“gorillas”) and allegiance to their own department secretaries. The DCI’s authority as spelled out in the National Security Act of 1947 was feeble, leaving the nation’s spymaster in a position of having to cajole, persuade, plead, even beg for coordination, rather than order it through the threat of budget and personnel retaliation against those “gorillas in the stovepipes” who failed to comply with the DCI’s directives.
While the DCI more or less controlled the CIA and had a main office there, the other fourteen agencies (sixteen in the mid-2000s) enjoyed considerable autonomy. The Director was unable even to determine how the nation’s intelligence budget of some $44 billion would be spent each year. In addition to the CIA, the other agencies include the National Security Agency (NSA); the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA); the National Reconnaissance Organization (NRO); the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA); the State Department’s Intelligence and Research (INR); intelligence units in the Departments of Energy, Homeland Security, and Treasury; FBI intelligence; the Drug Enforcement Administration; the Coast Guard; and intelligence units within each of the military services (army, navy, air force, marines). Even twenty years after the creation of the CIA, one of its deputy directors, Adm. Rufus Taylor (who served from 1966 to 1969), referred to the various intelligence agencies as little more than a tribal federation.
An important part of the CIA’s history since the Truman administration has been a series of efforts to overcome the flaw in its original design—that is, to strengthen the DCI and the CIA in their roles as collator and disseminator of information from throughout the broad intelligence community. The steam went out of each of these efforts after they confronted resistance from the various agency “gorillas” (the chiefs of each of the agencies) and the department secretaries, especially the secretary of defense in alliance with the congressional Armed Services Committees. “For the duration of the Cold War, the White House kept nudging successive Directors of Central Intelligence to do more to lead the Intelligence Community,” Warner concluded. But a towering obstacle persisted: “Cabinet-level officials … saw no reason to cede power to a DCI” (p. 49).
The precursor to the CIA during World War II was the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). During that war, the OSS provided covert assistance to resistance movements in Europe and Asia, and became adept at providing research relevant to the war effort and on occasion carried out derring-do secret operations behind enemy lines. Its most long-lasting effect, though, was to serve as a training ground for individuals who would help create and lead the CIA once it was created in 1947. The OSS was disbanded after the war, but many of its experienced personnel soon entered the new CIA, including future directors Allen Dulles, Richard Helms, and William Colby.
The CIA, an independent organization situated neither within the organizational framework of the Pentagon nor in any of the other cabinet departments, continued the kind of operations employed by the OSS during World War II—only now with a much more prominent position in the government and a new adversary: the communist nations of the world. “The Agency,” as the CIA is called by its own personnel, has three primary missions: the collection and interpretation (“analysis”) of information gathered from every corner of the globe; the protection of U.S. government secrets against hostile intelligence services and other spies (“counterintelligence”); and the clandestine manipulation of events in foreign lands on behalf of America’s interests, through the use of propaganda, political activities, economic disruption, and paramilitary operations (collectively known as “covert action” or “special activities”).
Intelligence Collection and Analysis The collection of intelligence relies on machines (satellites and reconnaissance airplanes, for example; so-called technical intelligence or “techint,” in the professional acronym); on human means (classic espionage or human intelligence; “humint”); and on the sifting of information available in the open literature (newspapers, public speeches, and the like; sometimes referred to as open-source intelligence or “osint”). Each method has its drawbacks. Photographs taken by satellites can be useful, but Al Qaeda and other contemporary terrorist organizations have become adept at hiding in caves in Southwest Asia, out of sight from the cameras. Moreover, the CIA lacks sufficient spy handlers (“operations officers”) abroad with good foreign language skills to recruit local agents (“assets”), especially in places where the United States has never had much of a presence (such as in China and nations in the Middle East and Southwest Asia). As a result, the human intelligence flowing back to the CIA is insufficient.
Even if this humint problem were solved, the community faces another, equally serious human deficiency: analytic brain power. The CIA does not have enough talented information interpreters (“analysts”) to lend insight to the fire hose of data that streams into its offices each day from overseas. On the eve of the second Persian Gulf War, for instance, the agency had few analysts fluent in Arabic. It is deficient, too, in the number of analysts who understand the history and culture of places like Iran and Pakistan that the United States largely ignored during its concentration on the Communist part of the world during the cold war.
Counterintelligence The CIA’s counterintelligence mission received its greatest setback in the period from 1984 to 1996. During that time, a CIA officer by the name of Aldrich H. Ames secretly spied on his own organization for the Soviet Union. He identified for the Soviets over 200 CIA operations against the USSR and revealed the names of nine CIA agents in Moscow, all of whom were then executed by Soviet officials. The CIA’s top counter-intelligence challenge is to protect the agency’s computers and other facilities from foreign “moles”—penetration agents engaged in treason against the United States on behalf of terrorist groups or other American adversaries.
Covert Action Covert action has been the most controversial of the CIA’s missions. It may be defined as those activities carried out by the agency to secretly influence and manipulate events abroad. This approach is often referred to as the “Third Option”—in between, on the one hand, sending in the marines and, on the other hand, relying on the diplomatic corps to achieve America’s goals. The use of military force is “noisy” and likely to draw a quick reaction from adversaries, as well as stir widespread debate at home; and diplomacy can be notoriously slow and often ineffectual. Thus, covert action has had a special appeal to some policy officials: with this tool, they can move rapidly and in relative quiet, avoiding lengthy public discussions over tactics and broader objectives (hence, the “quiet option” is another euphemism for covert action).
Covert action has often failed, as with the failed Bay of Pigs operation against Cuba in 1961 and the Iran-Contra scandal in 1986. The latter especially discredited covert action, because the Reagan administration carried out CIA paramilitary operations against Nicaragua despite vociferous congressional opposition. After the Iran-Contra episode, the budget for covert action plummeted to its lowest levels: less than 1 percent of the CIA’s annual budget. It would take the terrorist attacks against the United States on September 11, 2001, to stimulate a renewed interest in this approach to foreign policy and funding for covert action began a rapid rise upward in the name of combating world terrorism. In 2001–2002, the use of CIA paramilitary operations against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, in tandem with overt military operations by the indigenous Northern Alliance and U.S. bombing missions, opened a new chapter in America’s reliance on covert action. Today the most lethal weapon of covert action is the Predator, a pilotless drone armed with Hellfire missiles.
While the CIA’s secret propaganda operations against the Soviet Union and China during the cold war have been praised, the agency’s operations in the developing world have been subjected to widespread criticism. The best known and most controversial example is Chile during the 1960s. In the Chilean presidential election of 1964, the CIA spent $3 million to blacken the reputation of Salvador Allende, the Socialist candidate with suspected ties to Moscow. On a per capita basis, this amount of money was equivalent to the secret expenditure of $60 million in a U.S. presidential election at the time, a staggering level of funding. The CIA managed to thwart Allende’s election in 1964, but he persevered and in 1970 was elected president of Chile in a free and open election.
The CIA then turned to a range of propaganda and other covert actions designed to undermine his regime. The agency poured another $3 million worth of secret propaganda into the country between 1970 and 1973, in the form of press releases, radio commentary, films, pamphlets, posters, leaflets, direct mailings, paper streamers, and vivid wall paintings that conjured images of Communist tanks and firing squads that would supposedly soon become a part of life in Chile. Printing hundreds of thousands of copies, the CIA flooded the country (predominantly Catholic) with an anti-Communist pastoral letter written many years earlier by Pope Pius XI. The effect was to substantially weaken the Allende government.
Another well-known CIA covert action operation occurred in 1953, when the CIA joined British intelligence operatives in the overthrow of Mohammed Mossadegh in Iran. In his place, the CIA installed a pro-West leader known as the shah of Iran, who provided the United States with loss-cost oil and a friendly government in the heart of the Middle East. The shah, though, lost the support of his people over time and was finally deposed by a revolution in 1979 that brought to power a fundamentalist Islamic regime in Iran.
The Special Case of Assassination Plots A special category within the domain of paramilitary operations is the assassination of foreign leaders. This option has gone by a number of euphemisms: “executive action,” “terminate with extreme prejudice,” and “neutralization.” At one time during the cold war, proposals for assassination were screened by a special unit within the CIA called the “Health Alteration Committee.”
Fidel Castro was America’s prime target for assassination during the Kennedy administration. The agency emptied its medicine cabinet of drugs and poisons in various attempts to kill or debilitate the Cuban leader. Agency assets planned to dust his combat boots with depilatory powder, in hopes the chemical would enter his bloodstream through the soles of his feet and cause his charismatic beard to fall off. When this plot was abandoned (Castro’s boots were not so accessible), other agents sought to inject his cigars with the hallucinogenic drug LSD, as well as with a deadly botulinum toxin. Again, the operations failed. Various other plots using guns failed as well, even though the CIA recruited the Mafia to assist in the assassination attempts inside Cuba. Another target of a CIA assassination plot was Patrice Lumumba of Congo, who was killed by a rival African faction just before the agency tried to poison him.
The most widely reported CIA operation to eliminate large numbers of lower-level officials from the scene arose in the context of the Vietnam War. Code-named the “Phoenix Program,” the intention was to subdue the influence of the Communist Viet Cong (VC) in the South Vietnamese countryside. Some twenty thousand VC officials were killed as a result of this operation, though mostly in the context of military or paramilitary combat with South Vietnamese or U.S. troops.
In 1976 U.S. public revulsion toward the murder plots against foreign heads-of-state led to the signing of an executive order by President Gerald R. Ford prohibiting assassination as an instrument of U.S. foreign policy. The order, which states that “no person, employed by or acting on behalf of the United States Government, shall engage in, or conspire to engage in assassination,” has been endorsed by every president since Ford. The executive order has been interpreted to have a wartime waiver, which allowed presidents to use assassination as an instrument of combat in Iraq and against Al Qaeda. Proponents of covert action argue that the defeat of such venal powers as the Communists during the cold war or terrorists today justifies the use of this method. Those taking a more ethical approach to foreign policy have objected, though, to the “anything goes” approach to a national security.
The Church Committee Inquiry The assassination plots were uncovered in 1975–1976 by the Church Committee in the U.S. Senate, named after its chairman Senator Frank Church (D-ID). This investigative panel formed after reporting in the New York Times in late 1974 indicated that the CIA may have used its secret powers to spy on American citizens, in an operation known as CHAOS. Investigators discovered the Times was correct about the illegal opening of mail sent or received by some 1.5 million American citizens, but this was only part of the story. The Committee discovered as well that the CIA had engaged in drug experiments against unsuspecting subjects, two of whom died from the side effects; had manipulated elections even in democratic regimes like Chile; and had infiltrated religious, media, and academic organizations inside the United States.
In the aftermath of this inquiry, Congress established permanent intelligence oversight committees in the Senate and the House, and passed legislation to provide closer supervision by lawmakers over the secret agencies. The purpose was to establish safeguards to ensure that Congress would be in a position to halt abuses by the CIA and America’s other intelligence organizations. This is not to say that the Church Committee created a foolproof system of intelligence accountability. The Iran-Contra affair of 1986–1987 served as a reminder that even robust legislative safeguards are no guarantee against the misuse of power by determined conspirators in the executive branch. That scandal led to a further tightening of oversight procedures, including the creation of a CIA Office of Inspector General directly answerable to Congress.
The fear in 1975, when the Church Committee revealed the extent of intelligence abuses, was that the CIA and its companion agencies might begin to function as a secret government, subject to little review or restraint. Certainly, the Committee’s findings suggested this had become the case. America had to relearn anew an old lesson well understood by the founding fathers, namely, that power can have a corrupting influence on those who hold it—the central idea that guided the writing of the Constitution in 1789. With the safeguards established by the members of the Church Committee and other key officeholders in 1976, citizens of the United States are far less likely to suffer abuse at the hands of the secret agencies than during the earlier years of benign neglect when the intelligence organizations were relatively free of supervision.
Some have faulted this increased accountability as an impediment to the conduct of swift and flexible intelligence operations necessary to defeat America’s enemies abroad. The debate continues over the proper balance between accountability and efficiency—whether or not to have meaningful checks and balances in the domain of intelligence operations.
In the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and mistakes about the existence of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) in Iraq, official inquiries into the performance of the intelligence community pointed to the need for a strengthened DCI who could improve the sharing of information among the CIA and the other secret agencies. In July 2004, the 9/11 or Kean Commission (after its chair, Thomas H. Kean, a Republican former governor of New Jersey) advocated, along with a series of other reform proposals, the creation of a director of national intelligence, or DNI, with full budget and appointment powers over the intelligence community. In December 2004, Congress passed an intelligence reform bill, known as the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act, which established the DNI office. The Department of Defense and its allies in Congress managed, however, to dilute and obfuscate the authorities of the new intelligence director. As a result, the DNI—just like the DCI before—has ambiguous authority over budgets and hiring for all sixteen agencies. Not even the shock of the 9/11 and WMD intelligence failures have been enough to bring about the consolidation of the intelligence community.
Even a strong DNI with full authority over intelligence budgets and a mandate to bring about better information-sharing would not solve, in itself, America’s intelligence weaknesses. Reformers agree that other necessary changes included the development of better human intelligence in places like the Middle East and Southwest Asia (so-called humint—old fashioned espionage); improved foreign language skills and knowledge of foreign countries among collectors and analysts; better data-sifting to sort through the flood of data that pours into Washington from collectors around the world, separating the important “signals” from the large mass of “noise”; and fully integrated information technology, both horizontally throughout the federal government and vertically from Washington, D.C., down to state and local counterterrorism officials.
The 9/11 attacks and subsequent investigations failed to produce reforms that would have fulfilled President Truman’s hopes for a strong national intelligence chief. On the contrary, in a paradox the post-9/11 reforms have led to a diminution in the powers of the DNI and a decline in the coordinating role originally assigned to the CIA in 1947. The CIA is no longer the central focus in America’s intelligence establishment; it has become just one of the nation’s sixteen secret agencies. Even its authority over humint, once full, is now shared with the Department of Defense. Moreover, unlike the DCI, the DNI is not located at CIA headquarters, but rather in a building at Bolling Air Force Base, near National Airport, cut off from the CIA’s experienced analytic and report-production facilities—indeed without any infrastructure beyond a small support staff. The DNI is in a weak position for trying to resolve the fissile tendencies of the intelligence “community.” The CIA has been weakened, too, by its 9/11 and WMD failures.
During the second Bush administration, the United States found itself involved simultaneously in three wars: in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as against global terrorism. Yet its intelligence agencies continued to display the same attributes that so troubled President Truman in 1947. They had yet to acquire firm leadership from a strong director of national intelligence, and they continued to be plagued by an inability to work together in a cohesive manner. Even the modest centralization of intelligence provided by the CIA in earlier years was on the wane as the agency found itself no longer at the core of the intelligence establishment.
SEE ALSO Allende, Salvador; Bay of Pigs; Fahrenheit 9/11; Intelligence; Lumumba, Patrice
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Jeffreys-Jones, Rhodri, and Christopher Andrew, eds. 1997. Eternal Vigilance? 50 Years of the CIA. London: Cass.
Johnson, Loch K. 2004. Congressional Supervision of America’s Secret Agencies: The Experience and Legacy of the Church Committee. Public Administration Review 64 (January–February): 3–14.
Miller, Merle. 1973. Plain Speaking: An Oral Biography of Harry S. Truman. New York: Berkeley.
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Treverton, Gregory F. 1987. Covert Action. New York: Basic Books.
Turner, Stansfield. 2005. Burn before Reading. New York: Hyperion.
U.S. Senate. 1975, 1976. Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities (the Church Committee). Interim and Final Reports. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
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Loch K. Johnson
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