The CIA, or Central Intelligence Agency, is the U.S. government agency tasked primarily with gathering intelligence and international security information from foreign countries. The controversial spy agency’s history dates back to World War II, and it played a key role in U.S. efforts to combat the Axis powers during that conflict, and in the Cold War that followed. Though shrouded in secrecy, some CIA activities—such as covert military and cybersecurity operations—have drawn public scrutiny and criticism.
The Office of Strategic Services (OSS)
The United States government has always had spies working against foreign interests, just as our enemies have used espionage against America. Consider, for example, Benedict Arnold’s failed plot to turn the American fort at West Point, New York, over to the British during the Revolutionary War.
But our government’s first large-scale institutional foray into spycraft started during World War II, after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Declassified government documents suggest that our military should have been better prepared for the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Indeed, Naval Intelligence—an espionage division of the U.S. Navy—had reportedly cracked Japanese military and diplomatic codes, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) had observed Japanese diplomats stationed in Hawaii engaged in suspicious activities in the weeks leading up to the attack.
However, what was sorely lacking was a centralized agency within the government that could sort through information gathered from spies working on behalf of the country, analyze it and report it to relevant officials.
With that in mind, President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the forerunner to today’s CIA, and appointed New York lawyer and World War I hero General William J. Donovan to head the fledgling agency. The original mandate of the OSS was to collect and analyze “strategic information” for use in war.
The National Security Act
With the OSS, Donovan—known by the moniker “Wild Bill” Donovan—was able to send saboteurs behind enemy lines to compromise military installations, disseminate disinformation to mislead Japanese and German forces and attempt to recruit resistance fighters. The agency had some 12,000 staffers in Washington, D.C. and elsewhere, including, for example, 500 or so field agents working in German-occupied France.
At the conclusion of World War II, however, President Harry Truman, who had taken office following Roosevelt’s death, didn’t see a need for the OSS and abolished it. Within a year of that decision—and after the beginning of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union—the new president had a change of heart, though.
With many of the former OSS leaders still on hand in Washington, he first established a Central Intelligence Group and a National Intelligence Agency in 1946. Then, in 1947, Congress passed the National Security Act, which led to the formation of the National Security Council and the CIA as it’s known today.
CIA Director and CIA Functions
From its founding in 1947 until 2005, the CIA was run by the Director of Central Intelligence (DCI). This position was generally filled by leaders from various fields, including the military, politics or business.
A number of notable people held this post, including the first, Roscoe H. Hillenkoetter, and former President George H.W. Bush, who served for two years in 1976-77. George Tenet was the DCI from 1996 to 2004, and some hold him, and the agency under his leadership, responsible for intelligence failures in the lead-up to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
In 2004, Congress passed the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act, which overhauled the leadership structure of the intelligence services and placed all of them—including the Department of Homeland Security and the CIA—under the auspices of the newly created position of Director of National Intelligence. As a result, the CIA is now headed up by the Director of the CIA.
The post of CIA Director has been held by a number of important figures, including former Democratic Congressman Leon Panetta, who was President Barack Obama’s first CIA Director. Panetta was in charge when the agency’s “harsh interrogation” techniques—used in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks—were publicly revealed. The CIA headquarters are in Langley, Virginia.
The Bay of Pigs
While the CIA has certainly expanded America’s intelligence apparatus—the agency currently has some 50,000 staffers—it has not always been successful in its operations around the world.
For example, declassified government records suggest that the CIA was behind the failed 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. The agency recruited Cuban exiles living in the United States and trained them in military tactics for an invasion of the island nation that had come under the leadership of communist Fidel Castro following a revolution.
The poorly planned operation was a fiasco, and rather than weakening Castro’s hold on power, the botched affair strengthened his hand, and Castro remained in office for many years.
From the 1950s through the 1970s, a CIA-operated cargo and passenger airline company—called Air America—was created to enable the agency to access the areas in Southeast Asia that the U.S. military could not have a presence in under the Geneva Convention. Air America was developed to provide a means for the CIA to track the influence of Communist China in the region, including countries such as Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.
However, reports suggest that agency operatives became involved with groups engaged in the Asian opium and heroin trade, and that Air America was used to ship drugs around the region.
The entire Air America operation was eventually suspended in the 1970s.
MK-Ultra was a clandestine CIA project in place from 1953 to about 1973, during which the agency conducted hundreds of illicit experiments—sometimes on unwitting U.S. and Canadian citizens—to assess the use of electroshock therapy, drugs such as mescaline and LSD and other methods for mind control, gathering information and psychological torture.
Details of MK-Ultra and other Cold War-era programs became public in 1975, during a series of investigations into widespread illegal CIA activities—including assassinations of foreign leaders—around the world and within the United States.
More recently, in the 1980s and 1990s, the CIA was linked with the supply and sale of crack cocaine in Los Angeles in elsewhere, with the proceeds from these efforts allegedly being used to finance the activities of guerrilla fighters in Latin America.
History of the CIA: Central Intelligence Agency.
The Office of Strategic Services (OSS): The Office of Strategic Services Society.
Inside the fight to reveal the CIA’s torture secrets: The Guardian.
The True — and Shocking — History of the CIA: AlterNet.
Pelosi says CIA lied on ‘torture': BBC.
Lawmaker: Panetta terminated secret program: MSNBC.com.