Happy Birthday, CIA

The birthday of America’s most famous clandestine service was last week. Today, guest author Peter Suciu delves a little deeper. Mad Duo


Happy Birthday, CIA: The History and Role of the Agency in the American Intelligence Community

Peter Suciu

It was 69 years ago, on September 18, 194,7 that President Harry S. Truman signed the National Security Act into law. It created the Central Intelligence Agency, and since that time the “Agency” – as it is traditionally known – has remained one of the principal members of the U.S. Intelligence Community.

For every truth that is known about the agency, there is nearly as much misinformation, and this even includes why the CIA was created in the first place.

A Day That Will Live in Infamy

A major impetus that led to the creation of the CIA was the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. As is largely known today, several different entities, including Naval Intelligence, pretty much knew an attack was imminent, but when and where were hazy. It was decided that there was a need for one agency to coordinate government intelligence efforts, and that eventually became the CIA. That wasn’t to say the other existing departments of government gracefully accepted the idea of a new agency to fill the void.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), State Department and even United States Post Office all jockeyed to fill the lead role in the intelligence gathering community. In the end it was decided a new agency should monitor and gather foreign intelligence. During World War II this role was filled by the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) which was set up to coordinate espionage efforts behind enemy lines, including the use of propaganda and subversion. The OSS was further instrumental in post-war planning, but that particular agency didn’t last beyond the war.

Instead, the CIA was created under that aforementioned National Security Act to fill the new role in intelligence gathering – the key word being intelligence. But the CIA has played a role in “policy” as well. In fact, in 1951 the CIA was merged with the Office of Policy Coordination (OPC), which was an independent agency tasked to conduct covert psychological and paramilitary operations.

By the outbreak of the Korean War the CIA still had only a few thousand employees and its mission was related to intelligence gathering. Despite what movies and TV may suggest, the CIA’s role has remained limited in the United States. Stateside, the CIA must work with other agencies, something it does on a regular basis.

“Counter intelligence remains very much in the domain of the FBI,” said Christopher Burgess, president and co-founder of Prevendra, LLC. after a more than thirty-year career at the CIA where he earned the Distinguished Career Intelligence Medal upon his retirement. “The remit of the CIA is abroad, but the collaboration with the FBI is ongoing and close.”

Failures and Success

The CIA was not an immediate success. In the early days of the Cold War the agency failed to see the Soviet takeover of Czechoslovakia and Romania, failed to see the threat that led to the Berlin crisis, was largely wrong in its assessment of the Soviet Union’s atomic bomb project, and most damagingly failed to “read the tea leaves” leading up to Chinese involvement in the Korean War.

These failures were, in a word: high-profile!

“An individual in the CIA does not get praised for the agency’s successes,” said Burgess. “However, every failure it ever has is plastered on the front pages of the biggest newspapers in the country.

Those early failures weren’t enough to derail the agency. In fact, it was determined that these early oversights were part of a learning curve and helped develop the skill sets CIA field agents would need to carry the heavy burdens that had been placed on its shoulders.

The Intel Game

While the agency has a long, and by some accounts checkered, history of regime change, the truth is that the role of the CIA remains one of intelligence gathering. Instead of James Bond spy missions against rogue criminal organizations, the role of the CIA is simply to gather intelligence. This often involves nothing more than talking.

“Human intelligence is collected by contact between two people,” explained Burgess. “It can be harrowing but most of the time it is no more interesting than two people having coffee.”

This isn’t to say that such activity doesn’t put those who talk to the CIA at risk. When these “assets” are talking covertly there is always a danger, said Burgess. “That risk could vary from incarceration to death, and when working with assets there is pressure to keep that source out of danger.”


Official Duties

One other serious misunderstanding in the public perception is that CIA agents always try to keep a low profile. This isn’t quite the case, and while agents certainly aren’t at casinos in tuxedos like Mr. Bond, they aren’t always “off the grid” like Jason Bourne.

Instead, many agents have a totally official role to share information. This is done through official channels.

“There is also the whole functional liaison relationship with the government to government exchange of information,” said Burgess. “This is a relationship between intelligence officers where they share and collaborate with the information that has been gathered.”

This is fully sanctioned by each nation’s government; however, it can have unwelcome side effects. The most notable involved Kim Philby, a high-ranking member of British intelligence who was responsible for liaising with the CIA to promote “more aggressive Anglo-American intelligence operations.” In 1963 he was revealed to be a member of the Cambridge Five spy ring after he defected to the Soviet Union!

That was especially harmful as the CIA had coordinated hundreds of airdrop operations inside the so-called “Iron Curtain” and these drops as well as the CIA’s Eastern European networks were compromised by Philby.

Most of the time, however, the working relationship between agents within the international intelligence community keeps things from getting out of hand. This has been true since the formation of the CIA 69 years ago.

“The liaison role has been present between governments since 1947,” explained Burgess. “The rationale is simple: you should always be willing to go to the table with anyone, and there is the saying that there is no such thing as friendly liaison. Every government has its own charter and its own national intelligence interests.”


The key to remember, said Burgess, is that every officer is working for their government, not yours – and today’s friends may be tomorrow’s rivals.

The key in this role is that sharing is what it is all about.

“If you aren’t floating the other people’s boat, then why are they at the table with you?” asked Burgess.


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About The Author: Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based freelance writer and his work has appeared in more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He has been writing about military history for nearly 20 years, and we’re pretty sure that this bio is the shortest piece he’s ever written. He continues to research and report on the history of tropical headgear at MilitarySunHelmets.com

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