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A Brief History of the CIA: Part 1

Written by Jeff Drake
1 · 26 · 18

Compiled by Jeff Drake 1991

NOTE: Where referenced – “Covert Action Information Bulletin” (CAIB) is a publication by former Central Intelligence Officers and people who have been studying the activities of our Intelligence Community for many years. They focus on intelligence issues, and expose covert foreign policy whenever and wherever they can.

“Covert foreign policy” refers to the political policy carried out behind the scenes, away from the public’s view. There is no public debate about these policies. If you ever find yourself wondering why there seems to be a big difference between what we are told by our government and what our government is actually doing… there could very well be a covert foreign policy involved.


The Gathering of Intelligence by one country about other countries, who may or may not be adversaries, is arguably necessary. Historically this has always been the case and if you take the time to think about it I believe you would agree that in the interest of self-preservation (and with today’s mixed up world), it pays to know what foreign governments are up to. World War II and the surprise attack at Pearl Harbor are not that far in the past that we cannot appreciate what good intelligence at the time might have prevented.

Today the United States gathers a tremendous amount of intelligence about friend and foe alike. Within the intelligence community[1] there are vast teams of people whose purpose in life is to analyze incoming intelligence information. Other groups take the analyses and make estimations based on them. Reports are then generated and sent to the President and the appropriate State Department officials who are in charge of making policy.

The Important Point to Remember when considering this particular flow of information is that the gathering and analysis of intelligence information is kept separate from the formation of policy. That is, the policy-makers have the final say-so on policy, not the intelligence community. Military intelligence that has been gathered may help shape their policy decisions, or it may not. This separation is important because this is the way the intelligence game was designed to work from the very beginning. However, some things don’t necessarily work the way they were designed, and the CIA is a prime example.

I believe that a close look at the history of the Central Intelligence Agency can prove that the CIA’s charter – to coordinate intelligence activities and produce national intelligence for policy makers as stated in its original mission statement – is in actuality, a secondary task. The historical facts indeed show that the CIA’s primary mission was (and still is) to conduct to the best of its ability, our government’s covert foreign policy.[2]

You May Wonder How one goes about studying the history of a “secret” agency. That it can be done at all is made possible for reasons not unlike those reasons that make possible the study by scientists of minute “invisible” subatomic particles. That is, they are impossible to capture as such, but their existence is made known to us by the “trails” they leave in both space and time. So too, for the CIA. This agency’s covert actions have left a “trail” of government approved and sponsored corruption, destruction, and murder across the globe. The trail is twisted, with many ins-and-outs and at times completely disappears only to reappear later somewhere else, yet enough information can still be discerned to come to certain conclusions regarding the Agency’s actions.

Believe it or not, there are quite a few books written about the CIA, many by former CIA agents who for one reason or another, decided to “talk.” I have made an effort to cross-verify certain claims of past covert activities by these authors. For the most part, many of these past covert actions and atrocities are public information now, i.e. public in the sense that it has been written down in a book somewhere. In some cases, the information has actually been disclosed by television documentaries like Bill Moyer’s, “The Secret Government,” on PBS. However, these flashes of insight into the inner-workings of our government are only momentary and often have no follow-up. Indeed, there is little “hand-wringing” and few cries of outrage by the media over years of consistent abuse of power, a condition that is worth looking into and understanding – a subject for a later discussion.

Unfortunately, there are few people who have taken the time or the risk, to consolidate the scattered puzzle pieces and present them as a coherent picture. This article is dedicated to people like Louis Wolf and Phillip Agee, who have done such an excellent job of “explaining the puzzle.”

Material for this issue has been condensed from a number of publications, all properly referenced. Although the author is responsible for the format of this article, credit for the information within belongs to the publications and authors mentioned in the footnotes.

The Beginning

The Plan for a Central Intelligence Agency was supported during the period of its conception (1945-46) by senior figures in both the US Navy and the Navy Department (at that time they were two separate entities). Individuals from these areas “supplied a number of blueprints that guided thinking on the shape such an agency should take.”[3]  The Navy’s interest is somewhat understandable when you consider the terrible consequences the Navy suffered from the surprise attack at Pearl Harbor. [Referred to itself by many as the result of an intelligence failure]

Also influencing the plans surrounding the creation of a Central intelligence Agency were some former members of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). The OSS was “an agency designed for war”[4] by definition, and headed by Colonel William J. (“Wild Bill”) Donovan. Because of its charter as a war agency, on the day the OSS was formed it was denied any domestic responsibilities, these tasks being passed over to the FBI. This was a significant precedent for the eventual formation of the CIA we know today since the CIA would also be denied any domestic responsibilities. However, at the time a support structure for the Second World War was believed necessary for the folks back home, and as a result a separate office of war information was created to “handle domestic propaganda.”[5]

The OSS legacy would live on even after its dissolution when the war ended, as four future CIA directors would turn out to be OSS veterans: Allen Dulles, Richard Helms, William Colby, William Casey, while a fifth, Walter Bedell Smith, was “closely associated with Donovan’s wartime outfit.[6]

The OSS was considered to be an elite outfit, and many of its members were “ivy league” and “Wall-Street oriented, reflective of the social composition of the East Coast establishment, internationalist, interventionist, and conducive to the irresponsible adventurism of recruits with private means.”[7]  There was perhaps, more than a modicum of truth in this belief, evidenced by the fact that forty-two members of the Yale class of 1943 went into the OSS. Indeed, the OSS became known in some inner circles as the “Oh So Social”[8] club.

Several attempts were made (and failed) during the 1940’s to form some kind of central intelligence organization. One plan was to expand the role of the FBI. The FBI, you might be surprised to learn, was already involved in foreign counterintelligence activities, pursuing Nazis and Communists in Latin America. But this “super-FBI” plan went up in flames. Arguments continued to ensue over who should manage a central intelligence organization.

Even when some headway eventually was being made towards forming a cohesive central intelligence authority, there was still a lot of internal controversy surrounding the idea, especially regarding who should be given the power to run such an organization. Donovan himself made a recommendation that the President should be the head of such an agency. The debate on this issue went back and forth for some time. Contributing to the delay (years actually) towards making a decision was the fact that the people “at the top” didn’t fully support it. In fact, neither Roosevelt nor Truman really liked the idea.

Roosevelt Waffled on the Decision due to on-going internal squabbles between his attorney general, who wanted to expand the FBI into such an agency, and others who disagreed. Truman, on the other hand, had some very definite concerns about converting the FBI into such an organization. According to the words of his aide, George M. Elsey, Truman “wanted to be certain that no single unit or agency of the Federal Government would have so much power that we would find ourselves, perhaps inadvertently, slipping in the direction of,” to use a phrase then quite common, “a police state.”[9]

And Donovan himself didn’t help things much when he approached Truman with the idea of a Central Intelligence Agency and claimed (albeit correctly) that Roosevelt had tacitly approved such an idea. Truman, already upset over Roosevelt’s death, and eager to dispel public murmuring and to show people that he was up to the job and that he was “his own man,” essentially told Donovan… “No!”, but in rather forceful terms i.e. up one side and down the other. Bad timing on Donovan’s part.

Another factor affecting Truman’s reluctance to agree to the establishment of a central intelligence agency was the image of the US abroad. The US had received several black eyes in the public relations department. For instance, in 1904, Roosevelt’s Corollary to the 1823 Monroe Doctrine had asserted the right for the US to intervene in Western Hemispheric countries under certain circumstances. Numerous interventions subsequently occurred which proved to be very unpopular (surprise, surprise) in the countries concerned (i.e. Latin America), and in 1933 the US renounced this right to intervene.

But, when it was perceived that the Nazis were beginning to involve themselves in South America during the early 1940’s, Roosevelt was again in favor of intervention and proceeded to intervene clandestinely in South America with the help of the FBI. When World War II ended, questions again arose regarding the continuance of our Latin American undercover operations. At issue was whether this prolonged interference might once again damage the good name of the United States.

Truman was apparently concerned about this when he was approached in July 1945 about the renewal of the FBI’s Latin American funds. Although he approved the funds, the Director of the Budget, Harold D. Smith, said that Truman “had some question, from the standpoint of good neighbor relations, about our having the FBI in Latin America.”[10]

[Apparently, Truman never quite got over his reservation about covert activities. In 1963, he criticized the CIA for their “cloak and dagger” operations and their effect on foreign opinion of the United States.][11]

 Truman Also Continued to be Quite Bothered by the possible development of an American police state. This fear presumably led him to eventually decide in favor of proposals that would divide and weaken the intelligence community’s police powers. He repeatedly told Bedell Smith that he was afraid of “building up a Gestapo.”[12]  This was a fear actually shared by both Democrat and Republican Congressmen who, in the mid-1940’s, denounced the formation of a “central intelligence agency in anti-Gestapo terms.[13]  Countering this fear in many people’s minds at the time, however, was a growing concern about the lack of intelligence and the possibility of a foreign power using their own covert methods to inflict harm on the United States.

A close advisor to Truman, Rear Admiral Souers, circulated a proposal for gathering intelligence in the fall of 1945 that started to make some progress. It called for the formation of a central intelligence agency which would be under the control of the president through another organization called, the National Intelligence Authority (NIA), which would in turn be dominated by the military. The purpose of this intelligence agency would be to gather intelligence and analyze it, along with various other functions. Of interest here is the use of a special “catch-all” phrase that was used to describe this new organization; that is, the proposed intelligence agency was to “perform such other functions and duties related to intelligence as NIA may from time to time direct.”[14]  [A similar ambiguous phrase would be used later in history to grant the CIA authority for whatever.] The National Intelligence Agency was made up of the secretaries of war, navy, and state, and included a special presidential representative.

Truman agreed, but created an interim organization called the Central Intelligence Group (CIG) and placed Souers as its director. Souers ran a small office of about eighty people and attempted to keep Truman up to date with summaries of world events and trends. CIG was managed by the military and along with other intermediary intelligence organizations like the National Intelligence Authority (NIA), would shortly fall by the wayside or get eaten up by other organizations as the fight for control of central intelligence ensued.

At about this same time, Russian-American relations were deteriorating. On February 9, 1946, Stalin announced to the world in a speech that Communism and capitalism were incompatible, and that the world economy would have to be transformed on Communist principles. Complicating things still further, the US and Russia were also bickering over the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and Winston Churchill contributed to the sabre-rattling with his famous Iron Curtain speech in Fulton, Missouri. With this type of Cold War activity and paranoia revving up, it was inevitable that emphasis on intelligence gathering and therefore, intelligence expansion was going to occur.

On June 10, 1946, Lieutenant General Hoyt S. Vandenberg became the new CIG director, serving until May 1947. Souers was replaced not because he had fallen into disrespect, but due instead to the fact that he had really not welcomed the CIG directorship in the first place. Souers then went on to become the first executive secretary of the National Security Council (NSC), “which supervised the work of the CIA, staying on in that capacity until 1950.”[15]

General Vandenberg made sure that some of the “more gifted veterans” of the OSS stayed on in the intelligence community. One of these men was James Angleton, who eventually became the CIA’s counterintelligence chief. Another was future CIA director Richard Helms.

Having got this far, proponents of a central intelligence agency really went to work in order to give their proposal legislative status. But, the debate still continued between people who were afraid of creating a Gestapo, and those who weren’t; between people who wanted total military control of the CIA, and those who wanted civilian control; between people who were afraid that the CIA was going to control both international and domestic operations including the FBI, and people who felt that the CIA should only be used in times of war.

In the end, the debate subsided long enough for a compromise to be reached regarding who should run the CIA – “the director shall be appointed from civilian life by the President, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate.”[16]

Thus, the Central Intelligence Agency Was Eventually Born amidst this cloud of controversy through the power provided by Section 102 of the National Security Act of 1947. About the only thing people in the government could agree on was that intelligence gathering was necessary due to a perceived Soviet threat of world domination. In light of these supposed public concerns, it is interesting to note that Section 102 of the National Security Act of 1947 which contained the provision creating the CIA, made no mention whatsoever of either the Soviet Union or the need for covert activities to combat the threat.

This means that the early CIA did not have any actual guideline to organize and/or sponsor programs to frustrate Soviet ambitions. Instead, Section 102 of the 1947 National Security Act (almost half of which contains verbiage regarding a military versus civilian balance of power) contained a number of explicit guidelines for generic US foreign intelligence gathering. Section 102 stipulates that “the CIA should coordinate the intelligence effort, should correlate and evaluate intelligence but without diminishing the right of other government agencies to do the same thing, should have access to the product of those other agencies including FBI information, should eschew police and internal security functions, should report to the president through the National Security Council (which replaced the National Intelligence Authority), and should `perform such other functions and duties related to intelligence affecting the national security as the National Security Council may from time to time direct.'”[17]

The latter part of this statement, contributed by Allen Dulles, about “other functions and duties” is a very famous loophole. It essentially meant that the CIA’s agenda was not only incomplete in 1947, but essentially up for grabs! Figuratively speaking, the ink was not even dry on Section 102 before intelligence proponents started planning more expansive roles for the CIA under this ambiguous umbrella. It is the statement often referred to as the essential blessing for the CIA to do whatever it wants regarding intelligence i.e. covert carte blanche.

And So It Began – In December 1947, National Security Council directive number 4/A put the CIA in charge of covert “psychological” operations, with the State Department supplying policy guidance. (The intention of these psychological operations was to allow direct influence and manipulation of foreign media.)[18]

In the meantime, while all of these decisions were still being made, Truman authorized the first post-war covert actions (and did so without involving the Senate). This first operation was a “democracy-propping” venture that involved influencing the Italian’s upcoming 1948 elections. (Believe it or not, many of the CIA’s interventions take place in “pro-Western” democracies. Even President Ford admitted that the CIA’s prime “covert operational” duty was to prop-up well established democracies.) This wasn’t the only reason for our interest in Italy, of course, for Italy was also of strategic importance to the US, being that it flanked the Balkans and at the time, dominated the Mediterranean. This made it a potential base for eastward air strikes, and it could be used to guarantee or impair oil supplies from the Near East.

After Italy joined NATO, it became even more important to protect NATO secrets. This belief led to a commitment (by the US) to keep the Communists out of the Italian cabinet. The CIA therefore remained committed to its Italian operations for both strategic and ideological reasons.

Next: A Brief History of the CIA: Part 2


[1] A term used to refer to all the US intelligence agencies and employees (military and civilian); the Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) is the most senior member.

[2] As stated here, “covert foreign policy” refers to the real policies, created under the veil of “national security,” that are behind so many of our government’s activities.

[3] Jeffreys-Jones, Rhodri. The CIA & American Democracy, Yale University Press, New Haven and London., 1989.

[4] ibid. p 18.

[5] ibid.

[6] ibid. p 19.

[7] ibid. p 20.

[8] ibid.

[9] ibid. p 29

[10] Smith diary, July 6, 1945, HDS.

[11] Harry S. Truman, “Truman Deplores change in CIA Role,” Evansville Courier, Dec. 21, 1963.

[12] Smith diary, July 5, 1945, HDS.

[13] Troy, Donovan and CIA p 256; Donovan, Conflict and Crisis, p 198.

[14] “Directive Regarding the Coordination of Intelligence Activities,” a draft dated Aug. 1, 1945, modified and forwarded for President Truman’s consideration on Jan. 1, 1946, folder “National Intelligence Authority,” CMC.

[15] Jeffreys-Jones, Rhodri. The CIA & American Democracy, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1989.

[16] Congressional Record as reproduced in Williams, Legislative History, p. 138

[17] Jeffreys-Jones, Rhodri. op.cit.

[18] ibid.

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Jeff Drake

Retired IT consultant, world-traveler, hobby photographer, and philosopher.
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