Created in 1947, the Central Intelligence Agency was headed by the director of central intelligence (DCI) until 2005, when the title was changed to the director of the CIA to reflect the introduction of the new director of national intelligence. The Agency has been divided into three divisions, dealing with operations (once called Deputy Directorate of Plans), analysis (Directorate of Intelligence), and research (Directorate of Science and Technology). Based initially in Washington, D.C., the headquarters moved to Langley, Virginia, in November 1963 and now occupies many buildings both on and off the main campus. At the heart of the CIA is the Clandestine Service, the traditional name of the Directorate of Operations (DO), headed by the deputy director of operations, who supervises the Agency’s collection effort. DO personnel are deployed abroad either under official cover—usually diplomatic, consular, or military—or non-official cover as businessmen and other expedients.
The CIA, as a deniable instrument of often undeclared White House policy, has undertaken numerous operations in pursuit of goals set out in classified presidential national decision directives, and until the resignation of President Richard Nixon in 1974, the president’s authority to authorize the CIA’s intervention on national security grounds went unchallenged. During the administrations of Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and John F. Kennedy, the CIA was active in supporting non-Communist political parties in election campaigns, undermining hostile foreign countries, and backing friendly governments. Among the operations made public are the success of the Christian Democrats in Italy and coups in Guatemala, Indonesia, and Iran.
Public embarrassment over the Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba and, in May 1960, the loss of a U-2 reconnaissance aircraft served to highlight the potential for political blowback, but it was the revelation in 1974 that the CIA had conducted domestic surveillance operations in breach of its charter that resulted in the congressional investigations known as the Pike Committee and Church Committee. During those hearings, the CIA acknowledged a catalog of misconduct, including attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro, mind control experiments, domestic surveillance of Vietnam War protestors, mail intercepts, and the incarceration of Yuri Nosenko. These and other “skeletons,” including the PHOENIX program in Vietnam and evidence that contradicted earlier testimony given by Richard Helms concerning CIA operations in Chile, left the Agency’s reputation in tatters, but with the organization essentially still intact. The result was the introduction of comprehensive congressional oversight, which had the effect of relieving the DCI from any soul-searching concerning the legitimacy of dubious instructions from the White House.
To the CIA’s continuing credit, to be balanced against the allegations of misdeeds, were the successes: the discovery of offensive missiles deployed in Cuba in October 1961; the recruitment of Oleg Penkovsky, Adolf Tolkachev, and several other Soviet sources who had tipped the Cold War in the West’s favor; and the recovery of the Soviet submarine K-129 from the Pacific. The very fact that the Cold War never developed into a shooting conflict, apart from the proxy campaigns fought, with Third World surrogates, in Angola, Laos, Tibet, El Salvador, and Nicaragua reflects credit on the CIA, even if it failed to anticipate the invasion of South Korea, the Hungarian uprising, the suppression of the Prague Spring, the Tet Offensive, the nuclear tests conducted by India and Pakistan, 9/11, and the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
Inevitably the CIA has been a victim of political expediency, with Adm. Stansfield Turner reflecting President Jimmy Carter’s appetite for technical sources of intelligence, in preference to enhancing the stable of human assets, thus leaving it to William Casey to restore the lost morale of the Clandestine Service, which had been decimated during his predecessor’s tenure as DCI. Then, having won the Cold War, the politicians were anxious to reap the “peace dividend” by dismantling Casey’s handiwork, thereby leaving the United States vulnerable to a surprise attack from an unexpected but impressively organized religious adversary. In the wake of the recriminations surrounding the Al-Qaeda attacks of 9/11 and the very flawed intelligence produced prior to the second Iraq War, the CIA was subordinated by an unnecessary Intelligence Reform Act to one of many collection agencies coordinated by the director of national intelligence.
Whether the associated wholesale restructuring improves the effectiveness of a CIA suffering from a risk-averse culture remains to be determined.