Erin has taught English and History. She has a bachelor's degree in History, and a master's degree in International Relations
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.
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.
License to Kill
One of the most dramatic changes to the CIA came in 2001 when President George W. Bush signed a secret order giving the CIA license to kill. In 1976, after a major congressional investigation into some of the aforementioned coup operations, President Gerald Ford signed a ban on assassinations. However, after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the U.S. government felt a new urgency to hunt down and eliminate terrorists all over the world. The new license to kill would aid in that mission, and also transform the agency.
In the years following the scandals of the 1970's and 1980's, the CIA settled back into its traditional role of foreign intelligence gathering and analysis. After 9/11, the priority became hunting down terrorists in the Middle East. The Counter Terrorist Center became the most important department at the CIA. Analysts focus primarily on targeting terrorists, and have increasingly relied on foreign spy services to collect foreign intelligence.
The CIA now operates the Predator Drone program, which engages in targeted killings. You may be saying to yourself, 'Hey wait, doesn't the CIA say it doesn't engage in assassinations? How does this license to kill work?' The lawyers at the CIA have argued that the killing of terrorists is done in self-defense. Because every nation has the right to self-defense, this is a lawful killing and not assassination. This continues to be debated, along with a host of other issues associated with the program.
There's also been a shift towards a more paramilitary focus. All you have to do is look at the killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011 for evidence of this, since it was in fact a CIA operation. While the average CIA analyst looks nothing like Jason Bourne, this new paramilitary focus has certainly shifted the agency to look a lot more like the Hollywood portrayals.
The CIA is a government agency tasked with collecting and analyzing foreign intelligence, and advising the president on national security threats. Increasingly, the CIA has become more involved in acting upon foreign intelligence. This has often led to controversy as it did during the Cold War. However, the priorities of the post 9/11 world have seen the CIA focus more on manhunts and targeted killings rather than gathering information about foreign governments, and stealing secrets.
To unlock this lesson you must be a Study.com Member.
Create your account
Register to view this lesson
Unlock Your Education
See for yourself why 30 million people use Study.com
Become a Study.com member and start learning now.Become a Member
Already a member? Log InBack