CIA: Definition, Facts & History

Instructor: Erin Carroll

Erin has taught English and History. She has a bachelor's degree in History, and a master's degree in International Relations

This lesson will discuss the history of the CIA, and what the official functions of the agency are. It will also discuss a few famous CIA operations, and the controversies over CIA actions. Finally, the lesson will review how the agency has evolved, and its current state.

Hollywood Spies?

We all know about the CIA. We love watching action movies like The Bourne Identity, and TV shows like Homeland where CIA super-agent spies work through intricate webs of intrigue using their weapon-like bodies and impossibly quick minds. However, for all the representations of the CIA in popular culture, people know a lot less about what the CIA actually does, and why it exists.


President Harry Truman established the Central Intelligence Agency, or CIA, in 1947 after WWII. During the war, the Office of Strategic Services, or OSS, was created as America's espionage force to combat the Axis powers. The OSS was a paramilitary group first and spy service second. After WWII, American officials discussed whether the U.S. should create a peacetime version of the OSS.

The Cold War presented the U.S. with a new and mysterious rival. Information about the Soviet Union and its plans would be vital to securing American interests. In 1947, President Truman signed the National Security Act establishing the CIA. Unlike the OSS, the CIA was created to be an espionage service first and as a paramilitary second. The clandestine department would be concerned with gathering and analyzing foreign intelligence to keep the government informed of all threats and security issues concerning the U.S.


Agency Structure and Mission

The motto of the CIA is, The work of a nation the center of intelligence.

It's independent from the Department of Defense, and has some oversight from Congress. In reality, the CIA answers and acts almost solely for the President. It's a clandestine (or, secret) agency headquartered in Langley, Virginia working all over the world to further U.S. interests, and advise top government officials on national security issues. Its budget is classified, as is the number of people who work for the CIA.

Its main function is to collect and analyze foreign intelligence for the President. However, an ambiguous clause in the National Security Act gives the CIA the power to perform such other functions and duties related to intelligence affecting the national security. These other functions have included everything from propaganda missions, election rigging, offensive cyber operations, and now operating the Predator drone program.

In many cases, Presidents have used the CIA as a paramilitary force. President Eisenhower began to rely on the CIA during his term, and most presidents have followed suit because the CIA allows Presidents to accomplish American foreign policy aims around the world secretly without using the military or inviting public scrutiny. Although the CIA has proudly served America with its intelligence gathering, when it's acted on foreign intelligence in covert operations, it's often led to controversy.

aerial view of CIA headquarters
aerial view of CIA headquarters

Controversies in the Cold War

Several covert CIA operations during the Cold War were discovered and exposed to major public scrutiny. One of the most embarrassing was President Kennedy's failed Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba. The CIA website claims that the CIA doesn't engage in assassinations or drug trafficking, but there's been increasing evidence that the CIA involved itself in many coup and assassination attempts from Guatemala to the Congo in the 1960s and 1970s.

The biggest controversy for the CIA was probably the 1985 Iran-Contra affair under President Reagan. It was discovered that the U.S. was selling arms to Iran in return for the release of American hostages. This was already illegal, but new allegations broke that the profits from the arms sales were being transferred to the Contras, a rebel group in Nicaragua hoping to overthrow the Communist government in that country. When the story broke, the public reaction was fierce. After this, the CIA was disciplined and forced to scale back their operations.

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