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10 Worst Mistakes by the Central Intelligence Agency

Updated on January 31, 2019

The CIA has been accused of just about every monstrous crime imaginable

When suspected assassin Lee Harvey Oswald was captured, a journalist asked if he had killed President Kennedy, and Oswald answered no - the CIA did.

Over the decades, the CIA has been accused of committing many crimes – targeted killings, assassinations, using torture during interrogations, nonconsensual human experimentation, abducting innocent people and training militants to murder civilians and noncombatants. In fact, if just half of these accusations were true, one might think the agency was in league with the devil - or constitute the devil himself.

At any rate, the CIA was established in 1947, about the same time as the National Security Agency, when concerns about the spread of communism and nuclear weapons were reaching a boiling point. Today the CIA’s main function seems to be gathering intelligence in the War on Terror. Then again, who knows what the CIA is up to? Would you really want to know?

This list suggests 10 of the biggest mistakes by the CIA, but perhaps the worst have never been uncovered.

Please keep reading!

Fidel Castro
Fidel Castro

1. Bay of Pigs Invasion (1961)

Once Fidel Castro and his revolutionary forces took power in Cuba in 1959, President Eisenhower authorized an invasion of Cuba so the Cuban Democratic Revolutionary Front, a group of Cuban exiles, could overthrow Castro and then establish a democratic government in the country. So the CIA funded and trained Brigade 2506, which carried out the paramilitary assault at the Bay of Pigs in southern Cuba. Unfortunately, the invasion failed after only three days. Taking the hit for this defeat were the CIA and President John F. Kennedy, who also approved of the invasion after his election in 1960. Ironically, the defeat solidified Castro’s left-wing dominion over the island nation and prompted his subsequent alignment with the Soviet Union, a chain of events that prefigured the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962.

2. Pizza Hut Meeting in Beirut (2011)

This time CIA officers were caught looking like rank amateurs. The CIA planned a meeting with local CIA spies and informants at a Pizza Hut restaurant in Beirut, Lebanon. Hoping to gain intelligence about Hezbollah, considered a terrorist group by the U.S. government, the CIA used easily traced cellphones and engaged in conversations using the code word “pizza.” Soon catching on, Hezbollah, utilizing the government of Iran, another interested party, did some basic detective work and soon identified the meeting place as a popular fast-food restaurant in Beirut. Hezbollah and the Iranian government eventually identified numerous CIA informants and case officers. Reportedly, Hezbollah deals murderously when informants are identified.

President Gerald Ford meets with CIA chief George H.W. Bush
President Gerald Ford meets with CIA chief George H.W. Bush

3. Family Jewels (1973)

James R. Schlesinger, Director of Central Intelligence, commissioned reports on abuses by the CIA. This list of abuses became known as the “Family Jewels.” Investigative journalist Seymour Hersh broke the story in an article in the New York Times. Alleged abuses by the CIA included: assassinations of foreign leaders; illegal surveillance of 7,000 U.S. citizens involved in anti-war activities; experimentation with U.S. and Canadian citizens by giving them drugs such as LSD without their knowledge and then observing the results. Because of this investigation, the agency came under scrutiny and President Gerald Ford issued an executive order forbidding the CIA from assassinating foreign leaders.

Flag of the Viet Cong
Flag of the Viet Cong
Viet Cong prisoner
Viet Cong prisoner

4. Phoenix Program (1965 to 1972)

During the Vietnam War, the CIA, U.S. Special Forces Operations and South Vietnam’s security apparatus executed a series of military intelligence measures designed to identify and “neutralize” anyone aligned with the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam, aka the Viet Cong. Procedures involved in this neutralization included infiltration, capture, terrorism, torture and assassination. Eventually, Phoenix operatives neutralized 81,000 suspects, of whom 26,000 to 41,000 were executed. Treatment of suspects in interrogation centers included gang rape, electric shock and beatings. Legal proceedings regarding the Phoenix Program began in 1970. Too much negative publicity forced the closure of the program in 1972, though it may have continued under a different name.

5. Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq (2003)

The administration of President George W. Bush pressured the CIA into supporting the administration’s point of view prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003. (But the extent of this pressure remains controversial.) Among the allegations, the Bush administration insisted Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and that Saddam Hussein was strongly aligned with al-Qaeda, and also may have been involved in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. As most people know nowadays, none of these allegations were proven to be true, and the CIA has taken at least some of the blame for this intelligence breakdown and for blindly supporting the Bush administration.

Watergate complex
Watergate complex
Nixon during Watergate investigation
Nixon during Watergate investigation

6. President Richard Nixon’s “Smoking Gun” (1974)

The scandal of the Watergate burglary rocked the administration of President Richard Nixon in the middle 1970s - that’s why many political scandals in the U.S. have the word “gate” attached to them. Anyway, gradually becoming a suspect in the scandal, Nixon enlisted the CIA to impede the FBI’s investigation of the burglary of the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate complex in June 1972. Nixon ordered his chief of staff to tell the CIA that if the FBI followed the money trail, security problems could be created. A recording buff of sorts, Nixon recorded the conversation, which became known as the “smoking gun.” When the taped conversation became public knowledge, Nixon resigned from the presidency in August 1974.

Khaled el-Masri
Khaled el-Masri

7. The Wrong Man (2003)

In 2003, the Macedonia police snatched a German citizen from a bus and turned him over to the CIA, which then transported him to a secret prison in Afghanistan. This man was Khaled el-Masri. Operating under a tactic known as Extraordinary Rendition, the CIA held el-Masri in custody for five months because of his alleged ties to al-Qaeda. While in prison, el-Masri was tortured repeatedly. Unfortunately, el-Masri was the wrong man. The mistake happened because el-Masri’s name has a similar Arabic spelling to the name of the real terrorist. Since 2001, the CIA has captured an estimated 3,000 people suspected of terrorism and taken them to various prisons around the world. Incidentally, el-Masri won a lawsuit filed against the CIA.

Fidel Castro (right)
Fidel Castro (right)

8. Assassination Attempts on Fidel Castro (1960-1965)

Following the end of World War Two, agencies of the U.S. were allegedly engaging in assassination attempts of foreign leaders, a violation of the United Nations Charter. Investigating such claims in 1975, the Church Committee learned that the CIA had tried to assassinate Fidel Castro eight times between 1960 and 1965. But Fabian Escalante, a retired chief of Cuba’s counterintelligence, said the number of attempts was more like 638. Such attempts by the CIA included poisoning Fidel’s cigars or making ones that would explode in his face; they also tried to biologically contaminate his scuba-diving suit. Aware of the many attempts upon his life, Castro said, "If surviving assassination attempts were an Olympic event, I would win the gold medal."

9. 9/11 Attacks (2001)

The CIA has been blamed for not informing the U.S. about impending attacks such as Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, as well as important events such as the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, but these events pale in comparison to the tragedy of the 9/11 catastrophe. Even though the CIA had been tracking Osama bin Laden since 1996, using a unit known as the Bin Laden Issue Station, bin Laden escaped capture and death while planning the 9/11 attacks. As has been well documented, at least some security experts predicted that a major terrorist attack on the U.S. was imminent prior to September 2001, but the CIA failed to “connect the dots,” as it has often been described. Interestingly, the CIA had a field office in the World Trade Center at the time of the attacks, but all agents escaped unharmed.

10. Project MKULTRA (1953 to 1973)

Commonly known as the CIA’s Mind Control Program, Project MKULTRA involved experiments and research at 80 institutions across the U.S. The project’s main goal was to study numerous ways to manipulate people’s mental states by using mind-altering drugs (particularly LSD), hypnosis, interrogation, sensory deprivation, isolation, verbal and sexual abuse, as well as torture. Also of major interest to the project was the development of a truth serum. Speculatively, another goal of the project may have been to develop a Manchurian Candidate, that is, a person who could be brainwashed into assassinating a political figure and then commit suicide. Some believe convicted assassin Sirhan Sirhan was such a “candidate,” who was captured before he could kill himself. Since many of the project’s documents were destroyed in 1973 when it was officially halted, the full extent of Project MKULTRA may never be known.

Please leave a comment.

© 2014 Kelley Marks


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    • Kosmo profile imageAUTHOR

      Kelley Marks 

      3 weeks ago from California

      Thanks for the comment, Kelly Ann Christensen. These days it would be particularly difficult to ascertain what the CIA has or hasn't done; there's so much fake news and false narratives floating about the social media! Nevertheless, we must keep an eye on them!...

    • KC3Lady profile image

      Kelly Ann Christensen 

      3 weeks ago from Johnson County, Kansas

      I was looking for Sparkster's various CIA articles when I found this one. I think the CIA has been a little more than just accused of some of these things. President Kennedy was allegedly intending to put an end to the CIA when he was assassinated. I think I have read in the past here on Hubpages that MKUltra, Project Monarch and Paperclip were in part discovered to have continued. It causes one to wonder what part the CIA has had in some of these overseas incidents where the stories differ so much. I have my own ideas about the element likely functioning as the CIA, more disgusting behavior and fumbling in the same direction. I recall that at least one man they drugged without consent died from it.

    • bradmasterOCcal profile image


      23 months ago


      This was a great compendium of CIA actions. Whether they were mistakes, it depends on whose side you ask.

      I mean, from the people side, it looks like that messed up, but from the CIA side, I would guess they might think they were successful.

      The predecessor to the CIA, the OSS didn't do much different that the CIA did in a similar attack on America. Both the Pearl Harbor attack, and the 911 attack were both successful, and these agencies had the information that could have stopped them from being successful.

    • Kosmo profile imageAUTHOR

      Kelley Marks 

      3 years ago from California

      Thanks for the comment, Readmikenow. The antics of the CIA are always a good read. Later!

    • Readmikenow profile image


      3 years ago

      Interesting read. I'm sure this is a subject that is very far reaching. Enjoyed it.


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