Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)

The Central Intelligence Agency is part of the American intelligence community, which is led by the director of national intelligence. Primarily, the CIA is responsible for collecting, analyzing, and reporting information about foreign governments, corporations, individuals, and multinational or para-national groups to U.S. government agencies and branches. The CIA describes its mission as being “the eyes and ears of the nation.” The second aspect of the mission of the CIA is to furnish relevant and objective analysis of international intelligence. The third aspect of the agency’s mission is to be the government’s “hidden hand” in conducting covert action to preempt threats to U.S. security or to achieve national policy objectives. Those covert operations are conducted at the direction of the president under the supervision of the director of the CIA.
After World War II and in the face of the increasing threat of Communism and the beginning of the Cold War, the U.S. Congress created the Central Intelligence Agency as the successor to the OSS (Office of Strategic Services), which ceased to exist in October 1945. The CIA came into existence with the signing of the National Security Act of 1947. While the CIA is charged with the task of collecting intelligence, it has no police power, no power of subpoena, no law enforcement powers, and no internal security functions within the United States. Its focus on foreign governments, businesses, and individuals places its activity outside the United States, since Congress created the agency to protect the privacy and security of U.S. citizens. The areas that are of greatest importance in the work of the CIA include international organized crime, narcotics trafficking, counterterrorism, counterintelligence, nuclear nonproliferation, the environment, and arms control intelligence.
The agency is organized into several departments, the most notable of which are the Directorate of Intelligence, which analyzes intelligence from all sources on key foreign issues; the National Clandestine Service, which undertakes covert collection of foreign intelligence; and the Directorate of Science and Technology, which creates and applies new technology to collect intelligence.
The standard euphemism for the CIA is the “other government agency.” That veiled reference is used when the CIA is involved in a situation but the United States cannot confirm the CIA’s involvement. Other colloquial names for the CIA are “the Agency” and, most commonly, “the Company.” People who work for the CIA are often called “spooks” or “spies,” as are persons who work for other intelligence agencies throughout the world. Because the headquarters of the CIA is located in Langley, Virginia, which was open farmland when the agency was formed and the headquarters was constructed, employees of the agency are often called “Virginia farm boys.”
Documentation indicates that at the time of the CIA’s creation in 1947, many former Nazi operatives were recruited to be agents. In return, those operatives were promised immunity from prosecution for war crimes committed during World War II (Operation Paperclip). In 1949 Congress passed a law that essentially allowed the CIA to operate in complete secrecy and without the limitations generally applied to the use of federal funds. That law also created a program that permitted defectors from other countries and persons considered essential to national security to be admitted to the United States without going through the normal immigration processes, to be provided with new identities, and to be provided financial support.
Within that Congressionally sanctioned secrecy, the CIA began the first “structured behavioral control program” in the early 1950s. At the time, there was little involvement or oversight of the CIA’s activities by other government agencies. That was generally explained on the basis of the need to maintain secrecy to protect the agents, sources, and methods employed by the agency. The CIA was also trying to match the capabilities of the KGB, the agency of Russian spies, in an effort to keep ahead of the Communist group. The early 1950s was also a time of rapid expansion of the reach of the agency.
Throughout the Cold War and under the Communist threat, the CIA was allowed to carry out its operations without much oversight or interference until the early 1970s. The eruption of the Watergate scandal and the efforts of Congress to exercise its oversight power over the executive branch of the government began to expose the activities of the CIA. When Watergate became a national issue, President Nixon tried unsuccessfully to have the CIA convince the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) that an investigation of Watergate would reveal too much about the involvement of the CIA in such past activities as the Bay of Pigs invasion. At about the same time, James Schlesinger, who was then director of central intelligence, authorized a series of reports that brought to light vast wrongdoing by the CIA. Those reports were often referred to as “the family jewels.” The general public probably would have known nothing of that sordid history had not a New York Times reporter published a story documenting the involvement of the CIA in the assassination of certain foreign leaders. The story also revealed that the CIA had been keeping files on thousands of American citizens who had been involved in the peace movement during the Vietnam War and those opposing nuclear proliferation.
In light of those revelations, by 1975, after intensive Senate and House investigations, the CIA was prohibited from future assassinations of foreign leaders, and the agency was notified that a prohibition against spying on Americans would be enforced. That trend has been reversed, however. After the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, many restrictions on the tactics of the CIA were removed. At the same time, the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 instituted a number of changes in the structure of the government’s management of domestic and foreign intelligence.
Over the past 60 years or so, the CIA has conducted a number of operations that have become quite famous. Those that have reached public awareness include:
•A mind-control program called MKULTRA that was conducted in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s; •A “false flag” operation in Italy designed to discredit leftist groups by conducting terrorist operations for which they would be blamed; •Numerous efforts in Eastern Europe to limit the scope of Soviet influence; •The overthrow of the Mossadegh government in Iran in 1953;
•The overthrow of the democratically elected government of Guatemala in 1954; •The Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961; •Efforts to assassinate Fidel Castro, head of state in Cuba; •Involvement in a secret war in Laos between 1962 and 1975; •Involvement in the Nicaragua “contra” conspiracy and sale and trafficking of cocaine; and, •Involvement in the coup in Chile in 1973.
The CIA and its activities, particularly its covert activities, have been the source of controversy since the agency’s creation. The CIA is criticized for breaking the laws of other nations, attempting assassinations, and disseminating propaganda. More recently, a great deal of public attention and ensuing controversy have surrounded accusations of torture against prisoners and the existence of secret prisons in foreign countries to which prisoners are taken in circumvention of American legal restrictions and Geneva Convention restrictions against the use of torture. However, the defenders of those practices believe that they are necessary to protect national security.
Historically, the CIA has abrogated the privacy of foreign citizens to protect the privacy and security of U.S. citizens. Recently, many critics and many American citizens have voiced the opinion that the lack of controls on the intelligence gathered by the CIA, the FBI, and other intelligence agencies abrogates the right to privacy that is constitutionally guaranteed to American citizens. Key issues in the debate over the authority to violate personal privacy concern racial or ethnic profiling, wiretapping, monitoring of personal communications via cellular telephones, access to personal records that show the reading habits of private citizens, monitoring of electronic mail and other Internet use, monitoring of personal movement via the Global Positioning System (GPS),and the use of radio frequency identification (RFID) chips to track the movement of pets, personal goods, and items shipped, among others.
In addition, questions on the legality of spying on American citizens who are not under investigation for a crime, and without a court order or search warrant,are arising. If there are no controls over spying against Americans or foreigners, there is also no control over the type of information collected or the way it is used. Although many Americans have been willing to relinquish certain rights to privacy in the post-9/11 climate of concern for national security, it has not been established that those same Americans are willing to relinquish all personal rights in favor of uncontrolled access by government agencies.
Some argue in favor of controls, noting that an attack by terrorists or another government requires months of planning, which would provide ample opportunity for government agencies to obtain the necessary warrants before initiating spying or surveillance activity. They point to a larger concern that, without warrants defining the information that can be obtained or the means by which it can be obtained, it becomes possible for any government agency to collect any kind of information on any individual residing within the United States.
The CIA, which serves as the “eyes and ears of the nation,” is in danger, according to some, of turning its surveillance activities on U.S. citizens. The current debate over the scope and limitations of CIA power, especially in this age of electronic snooping, may well define the agency’s role in American government for the coming decades.

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