Central Intelligence Agency

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Central Intelligence Agency

The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was established following World War II, from which the United States and the Soviet Union emerged as superpowers with vast military might and sharply conflicting world views. To protect the nation's security in all international matters and to ensure continued democracy and freedom for the United States, Congress created the CIA with the National Security Act of 1947 (ch. 343, 61 Stat. 495 [1947]). Gathering information from other countries relevant to national security is a sensitive task requiring considerable secrecy and covert activity. Unlike most other organizations, the CIA receives comparatively little media coverage when it is doing its job well. For this reason, most of the information that reaches the media concerning the CIA is negative.

All intelligence information collected by the CIA is reported to the National Security Council, under whose direction the CIA acts. The CIA is headed by the director of central intelligence, who is a member of the president's cabinet and the presidential spokesperson for the agency and the intelligence community. The director and deputy director of the CIA are appointed by the president with the advice and consent of the Senate.

The CIA is headquartered at a 258-acre compound in Langley, Virginia, and maintains twenty-two other offices in the Washington, D.C., area. The main compound includes a printing plant that produces phony documents, such as birth certificates, passports, and driver's licenses, for use by its agents. The plant also produces the President's Daily Brief, an eight-page CIA document that is presented to the president every morning. Another facility is used exclusively for recruiting spies to work for the CIA; another houses the Foreign Broadcast Information Service, which monitors and translates broadcasts from forty-seven countries. Several other facilities recruit officers of the former Komitet Gosudarstvennoi Bezopasnosti (KGB)—the State Security Committee for countries in the former Soviet Union, now known as the Russian Federal Security Service—to spy on their own countries. The agency also maintains facilities in 130 countries throughout the world. Of the $28 billion that is budgeted annually to the U.S. Intelligence Committee, $3 billion goes to the CIA. The official number of individuals employed by the CIA is sixteen thousand, but many believe the actual number to be closer to twenty-two thousand.

Although all aspects of the CIA revolve around gathering intelligence and maintaining the security of the nation, the actual responsibilities of the agency are many and varied; they include

  • Advising the National Security Council in matters concerning national security
  • Gathering and disseminating foreign intelligence (The CIA coordinates with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to gather intelligence within the United States.)
  • Conducting counterintelligence activities outside of the United States (The CIA coordinates with the FBI to conduct intelligence and counterintelligence activities within the United States.)
  • Gathering and disseminating intelligence on the foreign aspects of narcotics production and trafficking
  • Conducting other special activities approved by the president.

In its earliest days the CIA operated in a shroud of secrecy. In recent years, however, increased media attention has made the country more aware of CIA activities. Since the mid 1970s, the CIA has received more attention for breaking the law than it has for upholding national security. Four events focused unwanted attention to the CIA: the Church committee hearings, the Iran-Contra Affair, the Aldrich Ames scandal, and the end of the Cold War.

The Church Committee Hearings

In 1974, the New York Times broke a story that the CIA had violated its charter by spying on U.S. citizens who openly opposed the Vietnam War. An investigation followed, headed by Senator Frank Church (D-ID). Church and his committee uncovered a wealth of damaging information about the agency that went far beyond the issue of the Vietnam War. The Church committee hearings changed the way the public looked at the agency that is responsible for the security of its country.

The Church committee found that the CIA had been intercepting and reading mail exchanged between the United States and the Soviet bloc. The CIA had records on more than three hundred thousand U.S. citizens who had no ties with Espionage or intelligence. The CIA had also conducted LSD tests on unknowing participants, one of whom was driven to suicide. Through the CIA, the United States had tried to assassinate at least five foreign leaders, including Cuban premier Fidel Castro. The CIA had first decided to embarrass the Cuban leader and thereby damage his popularity. To accomplish this, the agency plotted to make Castro's beard fall off by placing thallium salts in his shoes. The agency had a second plot: to give Castro a personality disorder by contaminating his cigars. The agency had even enlisted the help of the mafia in its attempt to assassinate Castro. These shocking disclosures brought demands for closer scrutiny of CIA activities.

Following the Church committee hearings, Congress amended the National Security Act of 1947 in 1980 to require the CIA to inform the House and Senate Intelligence Committees of "significant anticipated intelligence activity." Within six years, however, the CIA found itself in trouble once more for failing to inform Congress of its activities.

The Iran-Contra Affair

On November 3, 1986, the Lebanese magazine Shiraa reported that Robert McFarland, U.S. national security adviser, had come to Iran with a shipment of arms from the United States. This revelation spurred what was ultimately termed the Iran-Contra affair and spoiled an otherwise secret operation.

The CIA had involved itself in a covert action in which arms were shipped to Iran in exchange for the release of hostages. The payments that were received from the Iranians were, in turn, diverted to the Nicaraguan Contra rebels who were fighting the Communist Sandanista regime, at a time when U.S. military aid to the Contras was prohibited by federal law. All of this was done without the knowledge of Congress; the CIA informed neither the House Intelligence Committee nor the Senate Intelligence Committee of its actions. President ronald reagan had not approved the agency's covert activity.

One year after the arms had been sold, william j. casey, director of central intelligence and a cabinet member, asked the president to approve the transaction retroactively. Reagan signed an agreement to that effect, which specified that Congress was not to be told of the approval. John Poindexter, the national security adviser at the time, later testified that he destroyed the only copy of the agreement in order to save President Reagan from political embarrassment.

Despite great media attention and congressional finger-pointing, actual punishments for the Iran-Contra affair were few and lenient. Casey was never indicted in the scandal. McFarland and Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger were brought up on criminal charges, but both were pardoned on Christmas Eve 1992 by president george h.w. bush. All other persons linked to the scandal either were also pardoned by Bush or were punished with small fines, Probation, or both, or had their convictions overturned on appeal.

The Ames Scandal

It did not take the CIA long to make its way back into the spotlight. This time, it was not the agency that broke the law, but an individual. On February 21, 1994, Agent Aldrich Ames became the highest-ranking CIA official ever arrested. Ames had been selling U.S. secrets to the Soviet Union.

Ames's responsibilities as a CIA agent included directing the analysis of Soviet intelligence operations and recruiting Soviet agents who would betray those operations. This position put Ames in frequent contact with Soviet officials at the Soviet Embassy in Washington, D.C. Ultimately, Ames began selling U.S. security secrets to the Soviets, a venture that earned him more than $2.5 million before his arrest. Some of this information involved betraying double agents, disclosures that led to the death of at least twelve Soviet and Eastern European spies.

The CIA began to search for a mole (a double agent) in 1986, after two intelligence officers at the Soviet Embassy who had been recruited as double agents by the FBI were recalled to Moscow, arrested, tried, and executed. The CIA was jolted again in 1989 when three more of its most valued Soviet double agents met their deaths by firing squad in Russia.

In 1991 the CIA began to work with the FBI in investigating East Germany and other former Warsaw Pact countries for leads to possible moles in the U.S. government. Ames became one of the suspects and was quietly transferred to the CIA's counternarcotics center. Since the FBI was in charge of counterintelligence domestically, Ames fell under its jurisdiction of investigation. CIA officials played down the possibility of one of its key employees being a spy and blocked independent scrutiny by the FBI. Ames continued to betray the CIA and the country.

The CIA was sharply criticized for its unwillingness to consider one of its own a double agent and for its refusal to allow the FBI to investigate the situation. For years, the agency failed to monitor Ames's overseas travel, to question his personal finances, or to detect unauthorized contacts between Ames and Soviet officials. As early as 1989, the CIA had been warned that Ames appeared to colleagues and neighbors to have accumulated sudden wealth. Ames was questioned about the source of the money during a routine 1991 background check. He said he had inherited money from his father-in-law.

From 1985 onward, Ames and his wife Rosario bought a $540,000 house for cash, put $99,000 worth of improvements into the house, purchased a Jaguar, bought a farm and condominium in Colombia, and invested $165,000 in stocks. In one year, they charged more than $100,000 on their credit cards. According to court documents, the Ameses spent nearly $1.4 million from April 1985 to November 1993. All of this took place while Ames's annual CIA salary never exceeded $70,000. According to CIA officials, indications of wrongdoing by CIA employees were often overlooked because supervisors were far too trusting of employees, whom they treated as family.

When Ames got a call to go to his CIA office in the morning of February 21, 1994, he had no inkling that after almost nine years his career of selling secrets to Moscow was about to end. With Ames planning to travel to Russia the next day on CIA business, the FBI believed that it had to act. A block and a half from Ames's house, his Jaguar was forced to the curb, and Ames was arrested by FBI agents.

On April 28, 1994, Ames pleaded guilty to the criminal charges of espionage and Tax Evasion. He received a sentence of life imprisonment without Parole, the maximum sentence he could have expected if convicted after trial.

The End of the Cold War

The importance of the threat imposed by Ames's dealings with the Soviet Union was seemingly diminished with that country's dissolution. But despite the apparent end of the cold war and the break-up of the former Soviet Union, the United States continues to spy on the Russian Republic. The former Soviet Union also continues its own covert activities within the United States.

Some question the continued need for the CIA in the post-cold war era. But supporters need point no further than the war with Iraq to justify continued backing for the agency. The CIA was responsible for supplying intelligence reports that allowed the United States to cripple the Iraqi efforts in the Gulf War with an initial air strike. Without the assistance of the CIA, the war might not have reached such a swift ending. Supporters also argue that it is unfair to criticize a covert organization for its failures when so little attention is given to its successes. When the CIA is functioning efficiently and effectively, its operation is invisible to the country's citizens; it is only in failure that the secrecy of the agency is betrayed to scrutinizing eyes.

Since the end of the cold war, some members of Congress have called for severe cuts in the CIA's budget or dissolution of the agency. President bill clinton said that such ideas are "profoundly wrong," and that the United States still faces many threats and challenges, including Terrorism, drug trafficking, and nuclear proliferation. "I believe making deep cuts in intelligence during peacetime is comparable to canceling your Health Insurance when you're feeling fine," he said.

September 11th and The Aftermath

Having seemingly lost some of its purpose with the end of the Cold War, the CIA found a new purpose in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon on September 11, 2001. However, this new purpose came with both criticism and concern as to whether the CIA was up to the challenge of tackling terrorism. There was strong debate after September 11th as to what role the CIA should play, and how it fit in to the new security paradigm.

Like every other domestic and foreign intelligence service in the United States, the CIA was apparently caught by surprise on Sept. 11th. However, there were some who argued that it should not have been. It was shown that the CIA had tracked two of the terrorists from that day at an al Qaeda summit in January 2000. But the CIA did nothing to share the information with other agencies, and both men were allowed to enter the United States. The CIA also told President george w. bush at a briefing in August 2001 that terrorists associated with Osama bin Laden might be planning to hijack a plane. Again, nothing was done with this information.

Although President Bush defended the agency and refused to fire its director, George Tenet, he conceded that the cooperation between the CIA and the FBI could have been better: "In terms of whether the FBI and CIA communicated properly, I think it's clear that they weren't."

Further readings

Benjamin, Daniel, and Steven Simon. 2002. The Age of Sacred Terror. New York: Random House.

Curl, Joseph. 2002. "Bush Concedes FBI, CIA Faults, But Doubts Attacks Avoidable." Washington Times (June 5).

Gellman, Barton. 2001. "CIA Weighs 'Targeted Killing' Missions." Washington Post (October 28).

Kessler, Ronald. 1992. Inside the CIA. New York: Pocket Books.

Ranelagh, John. 1986. The Agency: The Rise and Decline of the CIA from Wild Bill Donovan to William Casey. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Rudgers, David F. 2000. Creating the Secret State: The Origins of the Central Intelligence Agency, 1943–1947. Lawrence: Univ. Press of Kansas.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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