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The Central Intelligence Agency: American Legacy, American Future

Updated on September 20, 2012

Dawn of the Post-Modern Era

Empires have shaped the history of mankind since the beginning of history. In the Modern era, many of the prominent world powers were dissolved, absorbed, or dramatically altered by two World Wars, revolutions, and innovative technologies and ideas.

Progressively, the world moved from a handful of powers like Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, and the British Commonwealth, to the Axis and Allied powers of World War II, to the American and Soviet buildup during the Cold War.

My great-grandfather's generation saw the rise of the Soviet Union and the fall of Hitler. My grandfather grew up during the Red Scare, and the infamous “Duck and Cover” era. Men like my father, who joined the military and were trained to fight the forces of Communism, handed the torch to my generation in a most anti-climactic fashion; none of us ever fought off Red Dawn, Uncle Sam never went head-on with Lenin, and when the Cold War ended, we went about our day. For Americans, the war stayed on the silver screen.

Since then, America has been crowned the Sole Superpower, a title both scorned and praised by Americans and foreigners alike. No longer does the threat of a standing army taking our homeland hold sway, no longer do we fear the imposing hand of tyranny from another nation.

In many ways, America has reverted back to it's early 20th century mentality, that we are safe because of our oceans, and our lack of proximity to the rest of the world. Indeed, the largest threat my generation has seen has come from religious fanatics living in caves, and while there was a significant amount of media frenzy, the death of Osama Bin Laden was in many ways the symbolic counterpart to the fall of the Berlin Wall- the war is over.

In a world with one pole, where American might is the currency of choice, what is there to fight? There are no more enemies, only countries with whom relations are strained. What is left to do? Through the last century, we saw the rise of one political actor that may answer this question: the Central Intelligence Agency.

American Intelligence, Pre-WWII: “Primitive and Inadequate”

While many know of the front-line exploits of American military power, less pronounced are the advancements made in the shadows, by our intelligence agents and spies. Where would our soldiers be if they had no maps, no description of the enemy, and no support in hostile territory? This is where the role of intelligence gathering became essential, and from where the modern intelligence agency developed.

For America, centralized, controlled gathering of intelligence at a government level came out of World War II. America had been gathering intelligence before this point, but primarily through the use of diplomats overseas, who would learn of sensitive information while on tour and were in a position to obtain it. Military intelligence was also vital, in the form of scouting and reconnaissance missions. In other words, spying was done by politicians and soldiers, but the true spy, or “spook”, had not yet arrived on the scene, at least not in the sense we imagine them today.

Unlike today, where information from the intelligence services is formatted into a daily report for the president, intelligence reports were sloppy and seldom made it to the White House without being requested. If something was thought to be important, it might make it up the chain of command, but could just as easily be forgotten in the bureaucracy. Different departments in government and in the military each had their own intelligence gathering operations, with their own methods and very little direction from outside authority. Diplomat Robert Murphy was quoted as saying;

“it must be confessed that our Intelligence organization in 1940 was primitive and inadequate. It was timid, parochial, and operating strictly in the tradition of the Spanish-American War.”


Rise of the OSS

A system in disarray, and the lack of anything to replace it with, prompted the creation of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1942. The OSS came as a direct replacement for the short-lived position of Coordinator of Information, or COI. Bill Donovan, who had been the COI, was chosen to head the OSS, and pushed for the organization to be under the authority of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Primarily, the OSS was responsible for gathering and analyzing useful intelligence for the Allied war effort during World War II. This is similar to the current function of the CIA, but with an important twist; not only were OSS operatives responsible for gathering information, they also acted on it. They were guerrilla soldiers used in a variety of missions from sabotage to damaging enemy moral, deployed over enemy lines to reek havoc. To Donovan, the OSS was there to “play a bush league game, stealing the ball and killing the umpire.”

During the war operatives were used to infiltrate and steal secrets from foreign embassies within the United States, such as those belonging to Vichy France and Spain. They were placed on the front lines to gather tactical information for Allied soldiers during the invasion of Italy, and it was OSS operatives who stole information which allowed the Allies to break Axis radio codes and listen to sensitive information for virtually the entire war.

Through the chain of spies and traitors loyal to the OSS, secret information such as documents and photographs could be taken from the hands of Nazi officers and wind up in Washington in a little over a week. Operations were established to support resistance movements in France, Poland, and many other Nazi-occupied nations. The OSS was active in Asia as well, aiding island tribes in the Pacific and the Viet Minh in China in their efforts to fight off Japan.

The Office of Strategic Services had a hand in every aspect of intelligence gathering and war fighting. Though the end of the second World War brought the end of the OSS, the result was awe-inspiring; For the first time in American history, the infrastructure for a global spy network capable of clandestine operations had been established, seasoned, and primed. The organization may have been disbanded, but the resources were not.


Cold War Agencies: CIA, KGB, MI6

While the American intelligence community found itself all but gutted after the war ended, the new political climate of the world was turning a nasty temperature. The Soviet Union was a difficult partner to work with, and mistrust amongst the Allies was a common theme even before the war was over. In fact, there was even a plan endorsed by Winston Churchill to re-arm Nazi soldiers and use them in an invasion of Russia.

Fortunately, such dramatic action was never taken, but it should come at no surprise that with tensions so high, it wasn't long before President Truman brought the OSS back together- although, in a new form.

The Central Intelligence Agency was created after the passing of the National Security Act of 1947, with the mandate of protecting US interests using covert means. It was in a sense a reincarnation of the OSS, with many of the original members and resources still in use.

The Soviets had their own intelligence sources, most notably the KGB (Komitet gosudarstvennoy bezopasnosti), or Committee for State Security. The KGB, founded in 1954, served many of the same functions as the American CIA, and eventually became the largest intelligence gathering agency in the world. However, it is important to note that while the KGB and CIA served similar functions, they were not identical agencies.

The CIA was specifically meant for missions in foreign territory, and acted as a secret-gathering agency, much like the OSS before it, only without as much para-military action.

The KGB, on the other hand, operated mostly on a domestic level, infiltrating embassies and spying on Soviet citizens. Also, the KGB was chiefly “The sword and shield of the communist party”, used to keep anti-government sentiments and those viewed as undesirable elements out of sight and under surveillance.

This being said, KGB operations abroad allowed them access to quite an array of secrets. They infiltrated nearly every major government in the world, and many Soviet weapons advances came from stolen technologies. While not necessarily a doppelganger of the CIA, it was surely an even match, and kept American intelligence workers on their toes until it was disbanded in 1991.

Britain was also active in the spy game, largely playing a supporting role to American operations, as well as specific duties such as propaganda and misinformation campaigns during World War II.

The British intelligence agency is known as the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), though it is more commonly referred to by it's nickname, MI6 (Military Intelligence, Section 6). While vital during the second World War, MI6 was rendered near useless during much of the Cold War due to crippling infiltration by Soviet agents.

All three agencies, CIA, KGB, and MI6, served similar functions, and each had areas of expertise. However, it can be argued that the CIA is the superior agency for several reasons. When compared to the KGB, the CIA was given a significant amount of freedom, and unlike it's Soviet counterpart, was not used as an instrument of controlling the domestic public, nor was it an extension of the military or party motivation. Also, it was never compromised to the same degree as MI6, thus retaining effectiveness for the duration of the Cold War.

The CIA did have faults; corruption, overuse, and too much independence led to incidents like the Watergate Scandal, the testing of illegal drugs such as LSD on American citizens, and the assassinations, as well as attempted assassinations of foreign leaders. These transgressions are indeed black marks, but the accomplishments of the CIA far outweigh those of MI6 in terms of success, and pale in comparison to the track record of the KGB, whose primary mission was domestic spying.

The Role of the Case Officer

Most “spying” isn't like the James Bond portrayal on TV. While this type of spying does exist, the most common form isn't actually spying so much as it is persuasion. Enter the case officer; their job is to go overseas to countries of interest and make contact with people who are privy to state secrets.

In this sense, spies are more like salespeople, according to former CIA operative Lindsay Moran. The CIA recruits people with good social skills, who are likeable, and can easily befriend foreign contacts without giving away their cover at the wrong moment. Once the operative gains the target's trust, they convince the target to steal secrets for them.

In his book See No Evil, former operative Robert Baer tells of one such mission, in which, while working as a case officer in India, he persuaded an Indian soldier to retrieve a set of technical manuals for a Russian T-75 tank, which had long eluded Western intelligence sources.

The manuals had to be stolen from the soldier's workplace, given to Baer to pass off to his superiors for study, and then returned back where they came from before anyone noticed. Baer was pursued and nearly killed by Indian agents, but the mission was a success.

Agents are given specialized training on the CIA facility known as “The Farm”. This is to help them understand the basics of spy tradecraft, as well as prepare them for recruiting spies. It is a difficult process, but one at which American spies proved adept during the Cold War.

Today's CIA: Shadow of Former Glory

Unfortunately, the Central Intelligence Agency did not age well. Many of the agents who were active during the Cold War have retired, some out of old age, while others out of disgust as the agency has shifted from front-line intelligence gathering to analytical work.

Indeed, the CIA's Open Source Center (formerly known as the Foreign Broadcast Service) is responsible for monitoring publicly available information. While in the past this information would largely come from foreign newspapers and television, increasingly it is coming from sources like Facebook and other social networking sites.

According to the Huffington Post, the Open Source Center monitors up to 5 million tweets on Twitter in a day. Most of this information is useless, but the useful information, like public sentiments abroad during the Arab Spring, makes its way to a special report in the President's daily intelligence briefing.

While this is an important job, it should be understood that in recent years, the backbone of American intelligence gathering has shifted from agents in the field obtaining secrets, to a hoard of researchers collecting information from secondary sources. It's hard to call it spying when you can find the information through Google.Apparently, the shift in emphasis has affected other aspects of the Agency as well, such as safety and general competence of Agency personnel.

In an interview on The Colbert Report, Robert Baer blamed an incident in which 13 operatives were killed by a suicide bomber on a lack of experience and oversight. According to Baer, the bomber was a potential informant who was brought to a secret CIA headquarters, where he was met by the 13 officers. Though he had passed through three rings of security, no one bothered to perform any kind of security check, resulting in the unfortunate incident. Sadly, Baer says the loss could have been easily prevented.

Security was not the only problem, however. Baer also states that the officer in charge of the base should not have been assigned to that post. She was a desk worker, not unlike the ones working at the Open Source Center, and therefore not trained in the procedures for meeting informants. Had she been aware of protocol, only a single agent would have met with the suicide bomber, and it would have been at an undisclosed, public location.

In Enter the Past Tense, a memoir by former CIA assassin Robert Haus, a perfect example of standard procedure can be observed. While working in Berlin, Haus would be walking down the street and pass his handler, who would inconspicuously fall into step beside him and begin having a conversation. The pair would walk somewhere semi-private, like a nearby bar, at which point Haus would be assigned new objectives.

It is apparent that the current CIA is either lax in its training of potential operatives, or suffers from severe oversight in hiring and placement of personnel.

Another interview on The Colbert Report with Richard Clarke, a former intelligence worker and expert on cyber security, highlights a much bigger, more pervasive problem; the intelligence community is too big, mostly due to the restructuring of the American intelligence system post-9/11.

According to Clarke, smaller is better in intelligence, and the number of agents and agencies has become so difficult to keep track of that no one has an exact number of either, with new agencies are being uncovered in both the public and private sectors on a near-constant basis.

Most troubling are two quotes displayed just before the interview with Mr. Clarke. The first was a statement made by James R. Clapper, the current Director of National Intelligence. He said:

“There's only one entity in the entire universe that has visibility on all [programs]- that's God.”

With nearly 10,000 independent entities working the intelligence scene today, it is all too believable that people in the highest levels of government have no idea what operations are being conducted behind closed doors. Another quote by Lt. General John Vines supports this:

“Because it lacks a synchronizing process...we consequently can't effectively assess whether it is making us more safe.”

This sounds eerily similar to the conditions leading up to the formation of the OSS; too many people moving in too many directions, no emphasis or leadership, and no way to determine effectiveness before it is too late.


The role of the intelligence agency has taken several forms, from the secret police of the Soviet KGB, to the gorilla warfare operations of the old OSS, to the data mining Open Source Center of the modern CIA. While the CIA emerged from the Cold War as the model intelligence gathering unit, forces of change within the Agency led to a reduced staff of experienced spies, as well as weakened ability on the front lines. In addition, confusing structure, bureaucracy, and lack of oversight has created a bloated monster made up of thousands of independently operating agencies, each with their own agendas and using up valuable resources and tax dollars.

In today's world, we have no clear enemy. All the challengers of the past, be they Nazi, Communist, or Jihadist, have been reduced to movie stereotypes. America sits in a key position of dominance, and the only way to maintain that competitive edge that brought us to this point is to keep the tools of power sharp. A strong CIA, and a strong intelligence community, can make a dramatic difference in world power; America will either restructure and advance into the next era of dominance, or be lost in a sea of Clouseau-esque spies and government red tape.


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    • darknezz111 profile imageAUTHOR

      Daniel Durand 

      5 years ago from Southern Idaho

      You're right in some instances. The CIA was negligent as an agency, but there were those within the agency that were aware of the impending doom that was 9/11. We knew that Islamic terrorists funded and backed by Bin Laden would attack us through terrorism, and we even knew they might use an airplane. We knew they were a threat since before Clinton was in office, but we weren't able to handle it because at the time, senior members of the intelligence community were not interested in hearing the facts.

      It sort of turned into a good-old-boys club; it was political and short-sighted, and in the end those agents leftover from the Cold War were outcasts because they knew what was going to happen and refused to be quiet about it. There has always been sort of a division between operatives and academics in the CIA, and in this case the academics lost sight of reality and were too focused on political favors.

    • ib radmasters profile image

      ib radmasters 

      5 years ago from Southern California

      their there

      I must read what I type

    • ib radmasters profile image

      ib radmasters 

      5 years ago from Southern California


      Very well done hub on the CIA and its predecessor the OSS.

      However, I also believe that there is a bad side to the CIA. There involvement in or should I say lack of involvement in 911 in 2001 and 2012 was less than sterling. But that wasn't the point of your hub. If I went beyond the scope of your hub, please feel free to delete my comment.

    • ib radmasters profile image

      ib radmasters 

      5 years ago from Southern California

      Well done hub, very detailed and interesting.

      The CIA, FBI, NSA doesn't equal Homeland Security.

      These agencies are like competitive siblings.

    • darknezz111 profile imageAUTHOR

      Daniel Durand 

      5 years ago from Southern Idaho

      Thanks Larry, that means a lot coming from you!

    • profile image

      Larry Wall 

      5 years ago

      Interesting and very well written.


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