United States: Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)

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World’s Largest

The world’s largest intelligence service, the CIA advises the president via a daily briefing and via the National Security Council and conducts clandestine operations outside the United States.  These activities include: espionagecounterintelligencecyber attacks,  paramilitary action and targeted assassination via drone warfare.

In January 2021, President-elect Joe Biden nominated former State Department official William Burns to head the CIA. If confirmed, Burns will succeed Gina Haspel, a career operations officer and the agency’s first female director. In 2013, CIA’s budget was $15 billion. Haspel said the agency employs 20,000 people.


Founded in 1947, the CIA played a leading role in the United States’ Cold War rivalry with the Soviet Union. Around the world, the CIA intervened in the affairs of other countries in order to repel the perceived Soviet threat. One scholar’s study found U.S. interventions in the elections of 81 countries between 1946 and 2000, with the CIA playing a leading role in most instances.

The Agency developed some of the world’s most sophisticated spying techniques.

The aerial surveillance plane, the U2, developed by the CIA in 1955, enabled the United States to map and see the military and nuclear forces for the first time. In October 1962, the U2 plane confirmed Soviet Union was installing missiles in Cuba. President Kennedy credited the CIA’s timely intelligence with enabling him to negotiate a peaceful resolution of the crisis.


WaPo Iran Coup 53 
Front page of the Washington Post, August 21, 1953. (Credit: Washington Post). 

The CIA’s most notorious operations include the overthrow of governments of Guatemala and Iran, assassination conspiracies against foreign leaders in the 1950 and 1960s, the MKULTRA mind control experiments, and, with the FBI, the Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO) targeting liberals, leftists, and civil rights leaders at home and abroad.


As the U.S. waged war in Vietnam, the CIA became a leading force in South Vietnamese politics. The generals who overthrew President Ngo Dinh Diem in November 1963 received financial support from the CIA, according to historian John Prados. In the late 1960s, the CIA established the Phoenix program to wipe out communist cadre in South Vietnam. Agency officials called the program highly effective. Critics said thousands of civilians were victims of extrajudicial killings. CIA director William Colby acknowledged at least 20,000 people were killed before the program was discontinued.


One of the agency’s greatest successes came in May 1967. Amid growing tensions between Israel and Egypt, agency analysts said that Israel would strike first and prevail militarily quickly. When Israel won the war in six days, President Lyndon Johnson started inviting CIA director Richard Helms to a weekly lunch.


The CIA became embroiled in multiple scandals during the presidency of Richard Nixon, giving rise to widespread public criticism and multiple congressional investigations. The House Armed Services Committee investigated the CIA’s role in the Watergate burglary. The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (Church Committee) investigated a program codenamed Chaos, which infiltrated the the antiwar movement, and another one called Lingual which illicitly opened the mail of U.S. citizens. In 1977, former CIA director Richard Helms pleaded guilty to misleading Congress, the first time an agency director had been convicted of a crime.


The critical findings of the bipartisan Church Committee resulted in the first real oversight of CIA activities in the late 1970s. The House and Senate Intelligence Committees were established to oversee CIA activities. With the inauguration of Jimmy Carter in 1977, a new CIA director, Admiral Stansfield Turner, laid off hundreds of operations officers and cut off subsidies for human rights abusers.


In response to these reforms, former CIA officers began to engage openly in domestic politics for the first time. George H. Bush, former CIA director under President Gerald Ford, mobilized the so-called “B Team” to question the agency’s intelligence findings on the Soviet Union. Other former officers founded the Association of Foreign Intelligence Officers to rally congressional opposition to intelligence reform.


When Ronald Reagan won the presidency in November 1980, with Bush serving as his running mate, the agency’s fortunes were revived. The agency received bigger budgets and bigger missions. In Latin America this meant funding for “dirty wars” against suspected leftists. In the Middle East, it meant secret deals to free American hostages.


When the House Intelligence Committee, and then Congress as a whole, voted in 1984 to block the CIA from intervening in Nicaragua’s civil war, Bush and director William Casey established an “off the books” covert network to fund counterrevolutionary forces in defiance of the will of Congress.


The exposure of the Iran-Contra conspiracy in 1987 resulted in the indictment of three senior agency officials and the revival of congressional oversight. But when President Bush pardoned the conspirators before leaving office in December 1992, he demonstrated the limitations of congressional oversight. Not coincidentally, the agency soon named its Langley headquarters, “the “George Bush Center for Intelligence.”


George Bush, CIA 
George Bush served as CIA director in 1975-76. (Credit: CIA)

Terror and Torture

The agency leads the United States’ so-called “war on terrorism.”  Just five weeks before September 11, 2001 CIA officials warned President George W. Bush that Osama bin Laden was “determined to strike in U.S.” After the attacks, the CIA paramilitary forces led the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan.


The agency’s most famous mistake came in a December 2002 National Intelligence Estimate asserting that Iraq’s Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. The estimate proved to be almost completely wrong.


At the behest of President George W. Bush, the agency also established a global system of rendition, black sites and torture. The agency played a leading role in the capture of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, planner of the 9/11 attacks, and other terror suspects. When President Barack Obama took office in 2009, the agency renounced “extreme interrogation techniques.” Director Gina Haspel reiterated that policy in 2018.


The agency played a leading role in the tracking of Osama bin Laden to a safehouse in Pakistan where he was killed by a U.S. special operations team on May 2, 2011.

Under Trump

Not long after Donald Trump was elected president in November 2016, he attacked the CIA. The agency had concluded that Russia had intervened in the presidential campaign, which Trump felt diminished his victory. He also blamed the agency for the leak of a dossier of information compiled by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele.


On his first day in office, Trump gave a speech at CIA headquarters that appalled many CIA leaders. In front a wall honoring agency employees who died in the line of service, Trump gave a campaign speech and boasted about the size of the crowd at his inauguration. Trump’s subsequent lack of interest in the CIA intelligence reporting further alienated former agency officials.


Trump responded by demonizing Obama’s CIA director John Brennan and others as a “deep state” out to get him. The Justice Department’s inspector general then reviewed the CIA and FBI investigation of Trump’s campaign and found abuses of the FISA system, but no political bias.


Haspel irritated Trump by offering intelligence findings he didn’t like on Iran and Saudi Arabia. She also has placated him by praising his intelligence and applauding his 2020 State of the Union address.