The History of the CIA

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Podcast Transcript

The United States federal agency charged with gathering foreign intelligence is the Central Intelligence Agency or the CIA.

The CIA is tasked with gathering, processing, and analyzing national security information as well as conducting covert action and clandestine operations. 

It was created in the shadow of the Second World War and became one of the most important organizations during the Cold War, as well as the most powerful intelligence organization in the world. 

Learn more about the Central Intelligence Agency, how it was founded and how it operates on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

I’m certain that everyone listening to this is familiar with the Central Intelligence Agency or the CIA. 

Much of what people know, however, comes from movies and television, which often portray CIA agents as having superhuman powers and the agency having omnipotent abilities. 

Of course, the CIA doesn’t do anything to dissuade this notion because it benefits them to have people believe they can do these things. 

In reality, the vast majority of people who work for the CIA sit at desks and aren’t galavanting around the world on spy missions. So, while the CIA is very different from most federal agencies, there is also a bureaucratic element to it, which makes it very similar to others. 

As with other federal agencies, the CIA was created for a particular reason and under a unique set of circumstances. 

To understand why and how the CIA was created, we must go back to the beginnings of the United States and how it handled intelligence. 

If you remember back, I did an episode on the Culper Ring, which was a spy network during the Revolutionary War. The Culper Ring gathered information on the British and managed to feed that information back to George Washington and the Continental Army.

It was actually quite successful, but it was highly informal. 

During the Civil War, both sides engaged in intelligence-gathering activities, but the gathering was limited to the war. When the war was over, the need for military intelligence ended. 

Intelligence collecting sprang back into existence with the start of the First World War. In May 1917, the Department of War created the Military Intelligence Section, which was then changed to the Military Intelligence Branch in February 1918 and then the Military Intelligence Division in June 1918. 

The Military Intelligence Division was the first organized attempt at gathering and analyzing intelligence by the United States. 

Unlike during the Revolutionary or Civil Wars, intelligence gathering didn’t end with the conclusion of World War I. The Military Intelligence Division continued after the war and throughout the entire interwar period.

They weren’t the only intelligence organization, however. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), began doing counterintelligence operations, and the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) was working on their on intelligence gathering efforts.

When the Second World War began, however, needs changed, and the intelligence service had to change with it. In particular, the uncoordinated efforts of multiple organizations needed to be consolidated in a single organization where information could be centralized and shared. 

In that spirit, on June 13, 1942, the Office of Strategic Services, or OSS, was established. The OSS put the intelligence activities of every branch of the military under one roof. 

The OSS was largely created as a response to the deficiencies of American intelligence operations. The British had created a successful intelligence organization in MI6 in 1909.

Also, in no small part, the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor exposed the weakness in American intelligence efforts. 

The OSS conducted espionage, sabotage, commando operations, and guerrilla warfare operations against the Axis powers.

However, before the war ended, General William “Wild Bill” Donovan, the head of the OSS, had written to President Franklin Roosevelt about the need for a peacetime Central Intelligence Agency.

This was, in large part, spurred by stories in the press about the OSS and their tactics. Some newspapers called them the American Gestapo. It turned out that these reports were encouraged by the FBI, which, under the leadership of J. Edgar Hoover, wanted to be the focal point of American intelligence in the post-war world. 

About a month after the end of the war, on September 20, 1945, President Harry Truman issued a decree dismantling the OSS and 13,000 of its employees. By October, its functions had been split between the Department of State and the Department of War.

Truman had to fight a political battle with the various branches of the military, the FBI, and the State Department about the future of American intelligence operations. 

Despite their objections, he established the National Intelligence Authority in January 1946 to oversee the National Intelligence Group.

This, however, was a temporary stopgap measure. 

The entire United States defense and intelligence framework was in the process of being overhauled. The end result of this process was the National Security Act of 1947. 

The National Security Act of 1947 was one of the most important laws passed in the 20th century. The Act established the National Security Council, created the Central Intelligence Agency, and merged the Department of War and the Department of the Navy into the Department of Defense.

The CIA was unique because it was explicitly not a military organization. Prior to this point, the military controlled all American intelligence efforts in one form or another. This was to be a civilian agency that would serve as an independent source of intelligence analysis for the President and the National Security Council.

In 1948, the National Security Council issued Directive 10/2, which encouraged covert activities to be taken against the Soviet Union, and “hostile foreign states or groups.”

The laws under which the CIA would operate were then later established in the Central Intelligence Agency Act of 1949.

The Central Intelligence Agency Act provided the legal framework for the CIA to function with a significant degree of secrecy and operational autonomy compared to other government agencies.

Some of the legal exemptions that were laid out in the 1949 Act include:

  • Exemption from making individual line items in its budget available to the public.
  • It was exempt from having to disclose the “organization, functions, officials, titles, salaries, or numbers of personnel employed.”
  • They could directly transfer money to other government agencies for classified contracts without disclosure.
  • Additionally, the Act authorized the CIA to admit a limited number of its personnel into the United States for intelligence purposes under special immigration exemptions, aka defectors. 

Because of the different demands placed on the CIA by other government agencies, they initially had two main missions: the amassing of covert intelligence and organizing covert actions against foreign countries.

They were also given very broad latitude over what they could do, including “such other functions and duties related to intelligence affecting the national security as the National Security Council may from time to time direct.”

The CIA was explicitly prevented from spying on Americans domestically and was chartered only with gathering intelligence outside US borders. 

The CIA was established at the same time as the start of the Cold War with the Soviet Union. This gave them a very clear mission and target for their intelligence efforts.

The first few years of the CIA were not good. They had a relatively small staff and had failed to anticipate most of the biggest events of the period. They had failed to predict the invasions of Romania and Czechoslovakia and the entire Soviet atomic bomb program.

However, given the importance of the Cold War and the of the Soviet Union in American foreign policy, the CIA was expanded, both in terms of manpower and its mission scope. 

One of the things it quickly adopted was counterespionage, particularly against Soviet block countries. 

A turning point in the organization came in 1953 when Allen Dulles was appointed director of the CIA. Dulles was the brother of John Foster Dulles, who was the Secretary of State under President Eisenhower and assumed his position just a week before Allen did. 

Under Dulles, the CIA greatly expanded its activities to include direct interference in other countries with the intent of thwarting the Soviets. 

Actions taken by the CIA under Dulles included the 1953 coup d’etat against the democratically elected Iranian Prime Minister. This coup was conducted to strengthen the monarchy of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and to ensure Western control over Iran’s oil resources.

In 1954, the CIA orchestrated a coup to overthrow the democratically elected government of Jacobo Árbenz in Guatemala, codenamed Operation PBSUCCESS. The operation was motivated by fears of communist influence in Central America.

Dulles approved the U-2 spy plane program, which took high-altitude spy photos of Soviet and Communist bloc countries. 

His tenure saw the start of Project MKUltra, a CIA attempt at developing mind control, which I covered in a previous episode. 

In addition to these operations, the CIA also interfered in Indonesia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Dominican Republic, 

He also oversaw what was perhaps the biggest failure of the CIA, the Bay of Pigs operation in 1961, which was an attempted invasion of Cuba by Cuban exiles. 

The failure of the Bay of Pigs resulted in Dulles’ firing by President John Kennedy.

The 60s saw the CIA focus its attention on Southeast Asia. During the Vietnam War, the CIA conducted covert operations to support South Vietnam, including the Phoenix Program aimed at disrupting the Viet Cong.

In 1963, the CIA backed a military coup in South Vietnam against President Ngô ?ình Di?m

In Laos, the CIA ran a covert war in support of the Royal Lao Government against the Pathet Lao and their North Vietnamese allies.

They also never gave up on trying to get rid of Fidel Castro in Cuba, having developed dozens of assassination plots against him. 

In the 1970s, this extended to supporting a coup in Chile, and in the 1980s, they were involved in the Iran-Contra Affair, where weapons were sold to Iran to fund a resistance movement in Nicaragua.

This is hardly a comprehensive list of CIA activities during the Cold War, and many of the topics I’ve just mentioned are worthy of their own future episodes.

The end of the Cold War also raised many questions about the effectiveness of the CIA as they had largely missed the collapse of the Iron Curtain. Data gathered from former Communist block countries after the Cold War showed that the CIA had been way off on their assessments of both Soviet military and economic power.

The Cold War also resulted in many people questioning the mission and purpose of the Central Intelligence Agency, but those concerns largely went away after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. 

Much of the focus of the organization shifted to counterterrorism in the 21st century. 

It should be noted that despite all of their covert activities on the ground, at the end of the day, most of the staff in the CIA work in office jobs, analyzing intelligence that comes in from the field. 

The CIA is unquestionably the largest and most influential intelligence agency in the world. Because of their secrecy and the laws that protect them, we really don’t know the full scope of what the CIA does or has done in the past, and it is quite possible that we might never even know. 

The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel. 

The associate producers are Peter Bennett and Cameron Kieffer. 

Today’s review comes from listener J-rad on Spotify. They write

fiv stars from a new member of the completionist club in MD. As a molecular biologist, this episode was great, but it seems there’s a lack of biology in a show about everything, is there any reason for that?

Thanks, J-rad! The point you bring up is a fair one, but there isn’t any particular reason for it beyond my personal interests and background. I do have some biology-related episodes in the works and I would expect to see more of them in the future. 

Remember that if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read on the show.