Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)
Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)
Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), United States government agency created in 1947 to gather information and conduct secret operations to protect the country’s national security. The information that the CIA gathers is known as intelligence. The CIA also coordinates the activities of the United States intelligence community, which includes agencies such as the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) and the National Security Agency (NSA). In addition, the CIA takes overall responsibility for gathering information from other U.S. intelligence agencies, analyzing the separate pieces of information from each source, and providing a recommendation to the president of the United States and the president’s advisers.
The president dictates the CIA’s general tasks and assignments, a process known as tasking. The nature of the tasks has changed over the years. Today, for example, the CIA’s responsibilities include identifying terrorists and halting terrorist attacks, anticipating threats to international oil supplies, and preventing the theft of trade secrets from U.S. businesses. The CIA did not have responsibility for these problems in the agency’s early years.
Some responsibilities have remained constant, however. The foremost of the CIA’s jobs is assessing the long-term potential threat to the United States by other countries. The CIA must ask basic questions, such as “What is Russia’s military strength, and how do the Russians intend to use it?” The CIA also has to predict short-term military threats, so it operates a warning system to protect the United States and its allies from surprise attack. In addition, the CIA works in cooperation with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to conduct counterespionage—the process of preventing spies from finding out U.S. national security secrets.
Several presidents have also ordered the CIA to conduct covert operations—the use of secret means to achieve foreign policy objectives. Covert operations might include providing weapons to a rebel army, kidnapping an individual leader who is seen as hostile to U.S. interests, or even organizing the removal of a government through a coup d’état, the seizure of an existing government by a small group. The CIA’s covert operations are controversial for many reasons, often because they involve conducting violent actions in other countries without a congressional declaration of war. In other instances the operations are uncontroversial and are covert in name only, and may become the subject of debate in open sessions of Congress and in the news media.
The CIA also has the responsibility of gathering information from other U.S. intelligence agencies and producing joint reports known as estimates. The NSA, for example, often breaks secret codes used by other countries and then intercepts the countries’ secret communications. The NSA passes the important messages to the CIA, which then integrates this information with the intelligence provided by other U.S. government intelligence agencies and with intelligence from the CIA’s own sources. The CIA sends these estimates to the president and other members of the National Security Council (NSC), which includes the chairperson of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (representing the armed forces), the secretaries of defense and state, and certain other members of the government’s executive branch.
The CIA is part of the Executive Office of the President of the United States, which means that the president has direct control of the agency. The president appoints the CIA director and deputy director with the consent of the United States Senate, and the two directors are responsible for ensuring that the CIA follows the president’s instructions. The president’s appointees sometimes come into conflict with career (permanent) CIA officials if the president tries to push the CIA in a direction that career officials view as unwise. The CIA also has to work to coordinate its efforts with the strategy established by the NSC. In practice, however, because the CIA’s day-to-day operations and its budget are secret, the agency has more discretion to act than nearly all other parts of the U.S. government.
Within the CIA, the director of central intelligence (DCI) and the deputy director of central intelligence supervise four additional deputy directors. Each of these four deputy directors leads a directorate (branch) of the agency. The Operations Directorate is the best known because it conducts covert action and counterintelligence around the world. The Operations Directorate has specialized divisions for each region of the world. The Science and Technology Directorate interprets data gathered from code-breaking activities; from telephone, radio, and other electronic transmissions; and from detailed photographs taken by spy satellites. The Intelligence Directorate takes the information provided by other parts of the CIA, other agencies in the intelligence community, and from publicly available sources, and produces analyses and estimates for policy makers. The Administration Directorate arranges the agency’s finances, personnel matters, computer facilities, and medical services. It also assumes the critical task of internal security—including detecting spies and potential spies within the agency.
Besides all this work concentrated in the CIA’s headquarters building in Langley, Virginia, the agency undertakes fieldwork in foreign countries. The CIA has an office, or station, in almost every nation, whether friend or potential foe. Each office is headed by a station chief, whose real job is hidden by a fictitious job known as a cover. A station chief’s cover is often as an official within the U.S. Embassy. The station chief must find out what is happening in the host country that may have a bearing on U.S. national security. Station chiefs are officers of the CIA and do not usually conduct actual spying, but they often hire spies to achieve their goals.
To ensure that the CIA meets these various responsibilities in a proper manner, the agency has an inspector general, who audits its secret accounts and investigates malpractice. In an attempt to limit the responsibilities and therefore the power of the director of central intelligence, Congress provided in 1947 that the CIA should not collect intelligence in the United States. The CIA only monitors the domestic activities of U.S. citizens when it believes they may be involved in espionage or international terrorist activities. Since then, Congress has periodically investigated the agency. In the mid-1970s, both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate set up permanent committees to oversee the CIA, and these committees have established procedures for the monitoring of covert operations.
4) HOW THE CIA GATHERS AND ANALYZES INTELLIGENCE
The excitement of spying and secret operations sometimes leads people to assume that a piece of information is important just because it is secret. In reality, CIA analysts spend much of their time gathering and analyzing information from newspapers, television and radio broadcasts, speeches by foreign leaders, and other public sources. CIA analysts call these open sources, and they are sometimes adequate to predict how a country is likely to act in the future. This enables the president, Congress, and other important officials to formulate effective U.S. policy. In many cases, however, open sources provide only an incomplete picture of how a country will act. In some instances, in fact, governments may deliberately publicize false information in order to fool the United States and other countries.
In many cases open sources do not provide enough information to enable analysts to draw firm conclusions. A piece of the picture will often be missing or unclear. Analysts must find the missing piece of the picture, which is often deliberately concealed by potential enemies of the United States. Once the analysts have found the piece, they must rely on their training and judgment to recognize where it fits into the overall picture. To help CIA analysts develop a complete understanding of world events, the CIA supplements open sources with three clandestine (secret) sources. The clandestine sources include human intelligence provided by CIA field officers, electronic intelligence gathering, and intelligence provided by other agencies. Analysts sift through and evaluate all the open and clandestine sources to develop a general assessment of how a country will act. The analysts pass these assessments to their superiors, who forward important reports to the director of central intelligence, who takes responsibility for keeping the president informed.
A) Field Officers
The CIA deploys hundreds of field officers all over the world to gather intelligence for the United States. The field officers report to CIA headquarters through the station chief in the country where they are placed. Each station chief supervises several field officers, assessing the information they have gathered and sending it to CIA headquarters. Field officers are expected to have detailed knowledge of the country where they are stationed, although the CIA has sometimes been criticized for sending out unqualified and poorly trained personnel. Field officers must be United States citizens.
Field officers rarely break into foreign military bases, infiltrate political parties, or otherwise try to collect sensitive information themselves. Instead they usually persuade foreign citizens to provide information. Sometimes foreign citizens volunteer to give secret information to the CIA. In oppressive regimes, their motive is sometimes altruistic and even patriotic—they feel they can best serve their country by providing the CIA with information that will help bring about social and political change or diminish the possibility of war. Such a spy is known as a defector in place.
In other situations CIA field officers use money or blackmail to convince foreign citizens to betray their country. The CIA field officer’s most difficult job is figuring out who might be willing to spy for the United States, and then using the right amount of persuasion and coercion to turn the foreign citizen to the American cause. The process of identifying and turning a foreign citizen is delicate because the best sources of information are often senior government and military officials. Approaching the wrong official might lead the foreign government to arrest or even kill the field officer. Even after a subject has been turned, field officers must constantly assess the accuracy of the information that he or she provides.
Because turning a foreign citizen is difficult and the intelligence received is sometimes unreliable, the most valuable spy is often not someone who has been turned, but a defector in place. At times, such “human assets” have supplied vital information that could not have been obtained by technical means. For example, from 1953 until his execution by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) sometime in 1959 or 1960, Pyotr Semyonovich Popov, a lieutenant colonel in the Soviet army, supplied the CIA with important information about USSR missile systems. Popov’s information helped the CIA understand the Soviet military threat before the advent of satellites made it possible to spy on the USSR from space.
B) Electronic Intelligence Gathering
The CIA Science and Technology Directorate uses a wide variety of electronic techniques to gather intelligence. These include planting bugs (microphones or other listening devices), intercepting radio transmissions, and using seismic sensors and satellites to monitor military activity around the world. The CIA relies on the National Security Agency for a large portion of its electronically gathered data, but also conducts some electronic intelligence gathering on its own. During the Cold War—the period from 1945 to the early 1990s, when the United States and the USSR vied for global dominance—the CIA operated its own “listening stations” in Norway, Iran, Australia, and other places. But since the end of the Cold War, the CIA has reduced its electronic intelligence operations and relied more heavily on the NSA. The CIA Science and Technology Directorate still contribute significant research, such as developing techniques to detect and measure dangerous gases from long distances.
C) Information from Other Agencies
The CIA receives and analyzes information from several other elements of the U.S. intelligence community. These elements include the DIA, NSA, the intelligence branches of the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines, the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, the Treasury Department and its Secret Service, and the FBI. The CIA also manages some joint programs with other parts of the intelligence community. The CIA and the NSA, for example, work together to provide eavesdropping equipment to the CIA’s stations around the world. Similarly, the CIA works with the Air Force to coordinate satellite reconnaissance. The CIA also receives information from the intelligence services of friendly powers. Britain’s MI6 and Israel’s Mossad are the most notable examples. Although the CIA sometimes has disputes with MI6 and Mossad over when and how to share intelligence, the generally close cooperation between these agencies reflects the strong ties that link the United States with Britain and Israel.
D) Analysis and Reporting
CIA analysts have the difficult task of sorting through information from open sources, field officers, electronic intelligence, and intelligence from agencies in the United States and other countries. In many instances most of the information is a jumble of irrelevant facts that analysts refer to as noise. But buried in the noise there may be a critical “signal,” giving an insight that can prove crucial to U.S. national security. Once the analysts have sorted and assessed the available information, they prepare secret reports that are passed on to policy makers. CIA analysts also prepare overall reports for the president and his staff on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis. The DCI also briefs the president personally on a regular basis and contacts the president immediately if there is a sudden crisis.
In most cases the CIA has little role beyond providing information to the president and other policy makers. These leaders must take the responsibility for responding to threats to the country’s national security. But the CIA’s reports may sometimes prod policy makers in a certain direction, and in that way the CIA can have a large impact on the country’s policies. In 1998, for example, the CIA produced a report indicating that a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan was producing chemical weapons, leading U.S. president Bill Clinton to order the bombing of the plant. The bombing became controversial when outside experts disputed the CIA’s claim.
A) Early Years
When World War II broke out in Europe in 1939, the United States had some intelligence expertise but lacked a central coordinating agency. Many Americans were reluctant to see the country enter the war, but others saw war as inevitable and pushed for “preparedness”—a reorganization of government and increased military spending. General William “Wild Bill” Donovan, an advisor to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, favored preparedness and urged the president to create a centralized intelligence agency to coordinate intelligence during the war. On July 11, 1941, the president appointed Donovan to the new position of coordinator of information. Donovan’s new intelligence organization failed to predict Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, which brought the United States into the war (see World War II: Pearl Harbor). Despite this failure, Donovan persuaded the president that the country needed a larger intelligence organization. In June 1942, Roosevelt established the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), with Donovan in charge.
During the remainder of the war, the OSS built networks of spies and informants, conducted sabotage, and ran other covert operations in western and southern Europe, North Africa, Burma (now Myanmar), and elsewhere. Donovan urged Roosevelt to accept the need for a permanent central intelligence agency that would operate in peacetime as well as during war. Donovan’s hopes for the OSS seemed doomed in 1945 when Roosevelt died and the new president, Harry S. Truman, decided to disband the organization. But in January 1946, Truman established a new organization, the Central Intelligence Group, an interim measure that prepared the way for the CIA. Congress authorized the CIA in the National Security Act of 1947, which also reorganized the armed forces and set up the NSC.
Historians disagree about why Truman decided to establish the CIA. Documents first released in the mid-1990s, however, suggest that from the earliest days of his presidency, Truman was concerned about Soviet expansionism and was determined to develop an intelligence organization that would help to counter that threat. Members of Congress debated the need for a permanent intelligence agency, with many of the debates centering on the national humiliation of the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. In the end, Congress decided that it was essential to have an intelligence agency that could warn the nation of such attacks. When Congress approved legislation creating the CIA in 1947, it became the first secret intelligence service in the world to be approved by a democratically elected government.
B) Iran, Guatemala, and the Bay of Pigs
After its creation by Truman, the CIA quickly became a key foreign policy tool for the White House. With President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s approval, the CIA conspired in the 1950s to overthrow two democratically elected governments. The motivation in each case was a desire to frustrate the expansion of Soviet political and military influence into new regions and to protect the interests of American corporations. In Iran, Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq tried to secure greater government control of oil production and policy. British oil interests and the British secret service began to undermine Mosaddeq, and the CIA joined in because they saw Mossadeq’s government as sympathetic to the Soviet Union. In a coup in 1953, Mosaddeq’s government was replaced by an undemocratic monarchist regime under Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi. American investors then acquired a major slice of Iranian oil production.
In Guatemala, the government of Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán planned to take over some land owned by a U.S. corporation, the United Fruit Company. With Eisenhower’s strong backing, the CIA plotted Arbenz’s overthrow in 1954 and helped install a right-wing dictatorship. The CIA saw Arbenz as a puppet of the Soviet Union, although many historians have challenged this view. The CIA was jubilant about its apparent triumphs in Iran and Guatemala, though a more sober assessment suggests that many Iranians and Guatemalans were already fed up with their governments and that the CIA played a marginal role.
But the CIA’s record in Iran and Guatemala led to overconfidence, and this was a factor in the decision to attempt the overthrow of the government of Cuba in 1961. Once again, the motive was to stop Communist expansion. In Cuba, unlike in Iran and Guatemala, the government really was Communist. However, Cuban leader Fidel Castro enjoyed widespread popular approval in Cuba. In April 1961 a CIA-trained force of about 1,500 Cuban exiles landed at the Bahía de Cochinos (Bay of Pigs) on the south coast of Cuba. CIA planners anticipated an easy victory in Cuba, but when the small army did not receive support from their fellow Cubans, Castro’s forces defeated them handily (see Bay of Pigs Invasion). This was a great shock to the administration of President John F. Kennedy, and to the CIA. Allen Dulles, the CIA director, resigned following the failed invasion. Although the CIA continued to use covert operations, top agency officials often took a more skeptical view of their usefulness.
C) Early Intelligence Gathering
Covert operations tend to grab the headlines, but most of the people and the money in the early CIA were devoted to more orthodox intelligence work. Although Dulles retired under a cloud, in the years from 1953 to 1961 when he served as director of central intelligence, he built up intelligence resources in important areas. He and his colleagues led the development of the U-2—a high-altitude spy plane with powerful reconnaissance cameras to take detailed photographs from a safe distance. Under Dulles’s leadership, the CIA also began work on spy satellites, and in 1960 the U.S. launched Corona, the world’s first reconnaissance satellite. Under Dulles’s leadership, the CIA also developed techniques to estimate the economic strength of the USSR—a vital element in assessing Soviet military potential.
Dulles’s term as DCI was marked by some significant mistakes, however. The CIA failed, for example, to provide President Eisenhower with a warning of the joint British, French, and Israeli invasion of Egypt in 1956 during the Suez Crisis. But the agency performed well overall in its core mission of assessing the Soviet threat. Notably, in the early 1960s it refuted the notion that the Soviets had more nuclear-tipped missiles than the United States. This dispelled the dangerous myth of the so-called missile gap, which suggested that United States nuclear forces were inferior to Soviet forces, and that the U.S. should embark on massive defense spending.
D) The Mid-1960s Through the 1970s
From 1964 to 1975, during America’s involvement in the Vietnam War, the CIA produced estimates on enemy strength and provided other intelligence that was generally accurate. However, the agency also participated in a counterinsurgency effort that became notorious and revived doubts about the usefulness of certain types of covert operation. In Vietnam, the United States supported South Vietnam, which it considered anti-Communist, against North Vietnam a Communist state influenced by the Soviet Union. United States military forces in Vietnam encountered unexpectedly strong resistance. Among the most serious problems was that in South Vietnam many Vietnamese civilians offered support to Communist guerrilla forces, called the Viet Cong by South Vietnamese leaders and American soldiers. With this broad base of popular support, the Viet Cong, more accurately known as the Peoples’ Liberation Armed Forces (PLAF), proved a formidable enemy.
In 1965 the CIA launched an effort to identify and kill civilians who actively supported the Communist cause. In June 1968 the effort was named the Phoenix Program. Financed by the CIA, the Phoenix Program led to the deaths of at least 20,000 PLAF supporters or suspected supporters. Vietnamese mercenaries in the pay of the CIA assassinated many of these civilians. News of the killings led some Americans to worry that their country had committed a crime against humanity.
E) Controversies of the Early and Mid-1970s
The CIA faced a series of controversies beginning in the early 1970s. Several former CIA agents were part of the Watergate scandal, in which President Richard Nixon and senior White House staff members were implicated in obstruction of justice and other serious crimes. The CIA’s troubles became far more serious in late 1974 and 1975, when the New York Times reported that the agency had violated U.S. law by spying on American citizens. Subsequent hearings in the House of Representatives and the Senate confirmed that the CIA violated its legal charter when it used wiretaps to spy on American citizens, opened U.S. mail, secretly placed agents in American political and religious groups, and burglarized offices of suspect political groups.
The 1975 congressional hearings also revealed that the CIA had a significant role in coups, assassinations, and attempted assassinations of political leaders in several countries. The targeted leaders came from countries including the Congo (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), Chile, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Haiti, Indonesia, and South Vietnam (now part of Vietnam). Not all of the plots were successful, and the CIA did not directly organize all that were successful. But many Americans recoiled at the idea of a secretive agency spying on American citizens at home while orchestrating assassinations abroad. Suspicion of the CIA became so intense that many speculated that the agency might have played a role in the 1963 assassination of President Kennedy, but no one has produced credible evidence to support this allegation. Fear that the CIA was out of control led to the creation of permanent oversight (supervision) committees in both the House and the Senate, and the strengthening of the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board.
F) Attempted Reform Under President Carter
When Jimmy Carter became president in 1977, he supported the principle of open government and regarded the CIA’s secrecy with suspicion. During Carter’s presidency hundreds of CIA employees were laid off, many of them from the Operations Directorate. Morale sank within the CIA, especially when it was accused of failing to predict the fall of Iranian Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in January 1979. The CIA failure was one of the agency’s most infamous because the fall of the shah deprived the United States of one of its main suppliers of crude oil and forced the closure of United States surveillance stations in Iran that tracked Soviet military activity. The CIA’s failure to predict the demise of the shah also left the U.S. Embassy in Tehrān vulnerable and, soon after the shah fell, Iranian militants seized the embassy and took dozens of Americans hostage. The standing of the CIA was so low that the Senate did not trust the agency’s ability to monitor a strategic arms limitation agreement between the United States and the Soviet Union, and this contributed to the refusal by Congress to ratify the treaty
About halfway through his presidency Carter realized that he needed the assistance of the CIA, but only if he could monitor its behavior. But by then there was so much bitterness between the CIA and Carter that it was too late to make amends. In the 1980 presidential election campaign, the Republican candidate Ronald Reagan condemned Carter’s intelligence policy, and promised to rebuild and “unleash” the CIA. Reagan’s stance on the CIA contributed to his victory over Carter.
G) The CIA under President Reagan
President Reagan made good on his promise to rebuild the CIA and secured a major expansion in the budget and personnel of the agency. (The CIA budget was a secret until 1997, when it was officially revealed to be $26.6 billion. Rough estimates suggest that the agency’s budget was about $20 billion in 1981, and that it reached a Cold War high of about $36 billion at the end of the 1980s.) Reagan named CIA veteran William Casey as the agency’s director, and included him in the Cabinet where he became a key presidential advisor. Reagan relied heavily on Casey and the CIA to lead his campaign to end what he called the “evil empire” of Soviet Communism. At Reagan’s direction, the CIA created reports that exaggerated the economic and military threat presented by the Soviet Union. The distorted estimates helped Reagan persuade Congress to approve massive funding for the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI)—a system of space-based defenses against nuclear attack. The Soviet economy, already hobbled by chronic problems, was too weak to support a Soviet military effort to match SDI.
H) Covert Operations in Central and South America
Reagan also put the CIA at the center of his aggressive Cold War strategy by ordering the agency to launch a new wave of covert operations against the Communist world. In El Salvador, Reagan’s CIA gave covert assistance to that country’s brutally repressive right-wing regime on the mistaken assumption that Nicaraguan Communists were operating from bases in El Salvador (see El Salvador: Civil War). In Nicaragua, the CIA supported the contras (short for "counterrevolutionaries," in Spanish), which set out to overthrow the leftist Sandinista government. The CIA’s sometimes ruthless tactics in Nicaragua became controversial, and in one embarrassing episode, a CIA contract employee instructed the contras on how to assassinate people on their own side, then blame the atrocity on the enemy Sandinista army. The Nicaraguan Sandinista government eventually did lose power in 1990, but in a peaceful election.
I) Covert Operations in Other Parts of the World
During the 1980s the CIA ran covert operations in many other parts of the world. Several African countries, for example, became the battleground for Cold War rivalries between the United States and the USSR. As part of this conflict, for example, the CIA supported insurgencies against quasi-Marxist regimes in Angola, Chad, Ethiopia, and Mozambique. The CIA also trained anti-Communist guerrillas in Afghanistan and supplied them with sophisticated Stinger ground-to-air missiles that could shoot down Soviet-supplied helicopter gunships. In Poland—then a Communist client-state of the USSR—the CIA supported Solidarity, a large pro-democracy trade union federation. By the late 1980s some of the countries targeted by the CIA had started moving away from Communism. Rebels in Afghanistan and Chad succeeded in ousting the pro-Soviet governments, and Polish authorities were forced to legalize Solidarity and to schedule democratic elections. But in Angola, Mozambique, and some other countries, the CIA’s covert backing of rebel forces produced only stalemates that left thousands of civilians dead and wounded.
J) Iran-Contra Scandal
Despite the CIA’s successes during the 1980s, the agency became embroiled in a serious scandal concerning Nicaragua and Iran. Relations between the United States and Iran deteriorated after the 1979 Iranian Revolution and grew even worse after Iran fought a bloody war against neighboring Iraq. As a result, the United States imposed an arms embargo that banned the sale of U.S. weapons to Iran. But officials in Ronald Reagan’s National Security Council ignored the embargo and in 1985 sold about $30 million worth of weapons to Iran. Members of the NSC also broke the law when they used the profits from those arms sales to fund the CIA’s support of the contra army in Nicaragua, despite a 1984 law that barred the government from providing assistance.
The CIA’s activities in Nicaragua were already controversial, so the Reagan administration came under even more intense criticism when the news broke in 1986 about the diversion of funds to support the contras. But Reagan enjoyed so much popular support and his foreign policy seemed so successful that he escaped much of the blame. The CIA also got off lightly, partly because the NSC had initiated the questionable activity and partly because Casey died in May 1987, before the scandal broke. The scandal did, however, result in one change. In the future, the person nominated to be inspector general of the CIA had to be approved by Congress, giving the inspector the independence and stature to investigate malpractice more thoroughly.
K) The 1990s
In the early 1990s, the CIA faced a great deal of criticism for its continued use of questionable covert operations and also because of its alleged analytical incompetence. Why, asked the agency’s detractors, had the CIA overestimated the economic strength and political durability of the Soviet Union? Why had it failed to predict the fall of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991? The CIA’s critics were eager to rein in the agency, and they scoured the history books for stories of past inadequacies, such as the agency’s failure to predict the fall of the shah in Iran.
The CIA also faced a crisis because of the end of the Cold War. President Truman had conceived the CIA as a weapon to be used in the Cold War, and in its first 40 years the agency’s main goal had been the destruction of the Communist threat. Many people saw the collapse of Soviet-directed Communism as a triumph for the CIA, but it also seemed to eliminate the agency’s main mission.
Against this already troubled background, the CIA faced sharp criticism in 1994 when senior counterintelligence official Aldrich Ames was arrested and charged with spying for the Soviet Union. Ames had been in charge of the Soviet section of CIA counterintelligence—the part of the CIA responsible for protecting the United States from Soviet spies. Beginning in 1985, Ames sold U.S. secrets to the KGB (the Soviet intelligence agency). His betrayal was an act of treason that led to the deaths of several U.S. secret agents. He also fed many Soviet disinformation documents to American policy makers, leading to mistakes in American decision-making. The FBI detected Ames’s misconduct and found the evidence to put him in prison. But the CIA faced severe criticism because Ames spied for so long, and because the agency security staff failed to notice that Ames had used over $2 million from the KGB to buy a luxury car, an expensive house, and other items that he could not afford on his CIA salary.
In the wake of the Cold War, many political leaders debated the CIA’s future. One group, led by Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, demanded the dissolution of the CIA and the establishment of a more open government. A second group defended the CIA’s record, and recommended it be left alone or strengthened. A third group thought that the CIA should survive in a somewhat reduced and reformed mode.
Facing a crisis, the CIA accepted the need for some change. In 1993 it slashed hundreds of jobs and cut back its spy satellite program. It agreed to the gradual declassification of documents dealing with its intelligence history. CIA supporters and officials proposed new roles for the agency, including monitoring the spread of weapons around world, fighting threats to the American economy, and stopping the flow of drugs into the country.
President Bill Clinton appointed a commission that conducted the largest-ever inquiry into secret intelligence. When the commission reported in 1996, it rejected a proposal that the DCI should become a so-called intelligence czar, with immense powers over the whole intelligence community. But it also recommended that the CIA should continue to operate, if in a more open and accountable manner. The president endorsed the findings of the commission, and the CIA’s post-Cold War crisis subsided. The moderates had won the debate. The CIA had lost some ground, but it had survived largely intact.
L) September 11 Attacks
On September 11, 2001, the United States suffered the most devastating terrorist attack in its history. In coordinated attacks, 19 hijackers belonging to the radical Islamic group al-Qaeda seized four commercial passenger jets and turned them into, effectively, guided missiles. The hijackers crashed two of the jets into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, causing the buildings to collapse. The third hijacked jet crashed into the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, the headquarters of U.S. military operations. The fourth jet crashed in an area southeast of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, after passengers tried to overcome the hijackers. Approximately 3,000 people died in the attacks. The U.S. government soon identified Saudi exile Osama bin Laden, the leader of al-Qaeda, as the mastermind behind the attacks. See September 11 Attacks.
The September 11 attacks prompted intense criticism of U.S. intelligence agencies and their failure to discover the terrorist plot. In 2003 a congressional committee investigating the attacks released a report that detailed systemic problems in the U.S. government’s counterterrorism efforts prior to the attacks, including poor organization, inadequate resources and training, and a failure to appreciate the likelihood of an attack on U.S. soil. The inquiry criticized the CIA for failing to monitor suspected terrorists, including two men who turned out to be hijackers. As a result of the CIA’s failure to share key information with the FBI about the men, the FBI missed “perhaps the intelligence community’s best chance to unravel the September 11 plot.” The committee recommended that the government create a Cabinet-level director of national intelligence to oversee all agencies in the intelligence community. In April 2004 hearings before an independent, bipartisan commission investigating September 11 revealed that the intelligence community had given a general warning of an al-Qaeda attack within the United States in a briefing to President George W. Bush in August 2001, a month before the attacks occurred.
M) The CIA and Weapons of Mass Destruction
The CIA also came under criticism in 2003 and 2004 for its claims prior to the U.S.-Iraq War of 2003 that the regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMD). The CIA’s National Intelligence Estimate on “Iraq’s Continuing Programs for Weapons of Mass Destruction,” released in 2002 and partially declassified in 2003, was advanced as the official justification for President Bush’s decision to invade Iraq. The report said Iraq possessed chemical weapons for use in missiles, had an active biological weapons program, and had “started reconstituting” a program to build nuclear weapons. The report also cited the claims of a “foreign government service” that Iraq had arranged to buy several tons of pure uranium, which is used to make nuclear weapons, from the African nation of Niger.
None of these claims were supported when the Iraq Study Group, a team of U.S. weapons inspectors led by David Kay, released an interim report in October 2003, more than six months after the United States invaded and occupied Iraq. And the claim that Iraq had tried to obtain pure uranium was shown to be based on forged documents. In January 2004 Kay reported to Congress that U.S. intelligence on Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction was “all wrong, probably.” No weapons of mass destruction were found, and Kay said that since 1991 Iraq had no program to make chemical weapons. Kay called for an independent panel to investigate why the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies failed in their assessment of Iraq.
In February 2004 CIA director George J. Tenet defended the national intelligence estimate, saying the report had “never said there was an ‘imminent’ threat.” Tenet took responsibility for the assertion that Iraq had tried to obtain pure uranium in Africa, a claim that was featured prominently in President Bush’s State of the Union speech in January 2003. Tenet also said that the agency had not come under pressure from the Bush administration to doctor the WMD evidence in order to provide an excuse for the invasion of Iraq.
Many observers believed there were other shortcomings in the U.S. strategy for Iraq, notably the failure to organize an international alliance and the alienation of potential Middle Eastern allies just when their help was needed. But public debate focused on the intelligence issue, and as in the past, the CIA found itself in danger of being the scapegoat for political failures.
Despite its faulty intelligence on Iraq, the CIA could claim success in 2004 in helping uncover a black market in nuclear weapons technology created by Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan. Findings by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the CIA, and other intelligence agencies were presented to Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf, who placed Khan under house arrest. The investigation revealed a widespread network that furnished technology and designs for making nuclear weapons to Iran, Libya, and North Korea. In 2003 CIA intelligence had helped lead to the seizure of a ship loaded with material for use in making nuclear weapons. The ship was bound for Libya, and the discovery of its cargo was a factor in causing Libya openly to renounce its nuclear weapons program in 2004.