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Cloak and Dagger: On Espionage and Intelligence Services. Part 2 (November 2020): The Birth of the CIA

Christopher C. Lovett

The Birth of the CIA

WW II altered American attitudes about intelligence, especially after Pearl Harbor. As European conflict neared American shores, WW I hero, lawyer, and politician “Wild Bill” Donovan convinced Franklin Roosevelt that the US needed an American intelligence service. Thomas Troy highlights the birth of the OSS and the infighting that took place between Donovan and the FBI in Wild Bill and Intrepid: Donovan, Stephenson, and the Origin of CIA. As Troy notes, the British helped organize and train the OSS at Camp X in Canada, none more so than William Stephenson, the legendary Intrepid (his wartime codename). Even earlier, Bradley Smith’s 1983 book The Shadow Warriors: The OSS and the Origins of the CIA was the first major study of the OSS. Smith notes the link between highly educated operatives, often recruited from Ivy League schools, and Donovan’s mastery of public relations as the basis for the future CIA. Robin Winks, a former Ivy League professor himself, relates that most of the initial recruits to the CIA had their first experience in the OSS and were educated at either an Ivy League institution or one of the leading state universities that required a foreign language to graduate. He details this arrangement in Cloak and Gown: Scholars in the Secret War, 1939–1961, also noting the marriage between academia and secret intelligence, which changed universities more than many would either believe or admit.

When the war ended, Harry Truman terminated the OSS, but that did not bring an end to collecting foreign intelligence. As the US moved into direct competition with the Soviet Union, there was a pressing need for a successor to the OSS. David Alvarez and Eduard Mark chronicle the reorganization of intelligence collection between the end of the OSS and the birth of the Central Intelligence Agency in Spying through a Glass Darkly: American Espionage against the Soviet Union, 1945–1946. During the war, the NKVD had infiltrated the OSS, which, problematically, did not take the Russian threat seriously. Following the conclusion of the conflict and the end of the OSS in 1945, however, the need to monitor Soviet intentions in Germany and Europe became obvious for policy makers. The Strategic Services Unit (SSU), a vestige of OSS-Germany, was assigned the task and relied on the British, French, Danish, and Italians for help. In a reduced role, the SSU continued its clandestine mission of countering the Soviets. Richard Schroeder’s The Foundation of the CIA: Harry Truman, the Missouri Gang, and the Origins of the Cold War reexamines the role of Truman and his closest advisers in founding the CIA in 1947. Schroeder stresses that Truman was by nature a cost-conscious skeptic concerning intelligence, though by the end of his presidency he realized the significance of intelligence not only for himself but for all future presidents. For a helpful evaluation of all the directors of the CIA from 1946 to 2005, readers may refer to Douglas F. Garthoff’s Directors of Central Intelligence as Leaders of the U.S. Intelligence Community, 1946–2005.

When Allen Dulles became director of Central Intelligence during the Eisenhower administration, he became concerned with being able to discern the truthfulness of defectors and agents. Stephen Kinzer, a longtime critic of the CIA, examines that issue in Poisoner in Chief: Sidney Gottlieb and the CIA Search for Mind Control. As he details, the CIA’s quest for a truth serum led Gottlieb, a CIA chemist, to experiment with LSD, often on unwitting subjects, in pursuit of the ultimate source for determining honesty, only to be exposed by the Senate’s investigation into the CIA’s excesses following Watergate. These revelations undoubtedly tarnished the public’s regard for the agency, prompting a need to sell the CIA image to the American public, something Dulles had realized even earlier. David Shamus McCarthy’s Selling the CIA: Public Relations and the Culture of Secrecy addresses that issue, particularly the notion that the CIA is open and truthful with Congress. Unfortunately, as the Church Committee and later investigations demonstrated, that claim was untrue. The world of secrets requires deceit and subterfuge.

John Prados, one of the leading contemporary intelligence scholars, provides a general overview of the CIA from its founding to the current war on terrorism in The Ghosts of Langley: Into the CIA’s Heart of Darkness. He believes that many of the critical problems that the CIA has confronted can be traced back to the structural shortcomings of the agency’s founding, particularly the overall lack of legislative oversight during its heyday. Congress failed to review the CIA’s operations in Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia until much too late, as evidenced by the later practice of extraordinary rendition starting in the mid-1990s and black interrogation sites after 9/11. As Prados notes in The Family Jewels: The CIA, Secrecy, and Presidential Power, the agency sought to conceal from congressional oversight those operations, especially assassinations, political surveillance, and illegal eavesdropping, that could shock the public and cause blowback if exposed. Only when those operations were revealed by William Colby during the Church hearings in the 1970s did the CIA accept a measure of supervision. More problematic, Prados alleges, was the effort to evade even that level of congressional scrutiny, which allowed Vice President Dick Cheney to mold intelligence to fit the prevailing neoconservative assumption that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, contributing to an unnecessary war in Iraq in 2003.

In addition to conducting clandestine and covert operations against the nation’s enemies, particularly the former Soviet Union (following its collapse), American intelligence organizations analyzed the data collected and created a net assessment of potential threats directed at the US. One of the most well-known assessments was the Soviet Estimate, an analysis concerning the collective strength of the Soviet Union vis-à-vis the US. Prados chronicled the significance of that assessment to future American military policy in his book of the same name, The Soviet Estimate. He describes how the US gathered information about the Soviet nuclear forces via satellite photography, electronic and signal intelligence, and agents in place, including Soviet intelligence operatives functioning as moles for either the CIA or MI6. The consensus among the CIA, Defense Intelligence Agency, and Office of Naval Intelligence was known as the National Intelligence Estimate. Problems developed, Prados notes, when those estimates did not fit the opinions of politically driven experts, pundits, and politicians who advocated massive increases of arms, particularly nuclear weapons in the 1970s and 1980s. For instance, Ronald Reagan’s fiery and bellicose rhetoric in 1983 nearly led to a preemptive Soviet attack, when Moscow believed that the US was about to embark on a preemptive attack of its own. Marc Ambinder’s The Brink: President Reagan and the Nuclear Scare of 1983 dramatizes how serious that issue was before Moscow and Washington worked out a nuclear arms breakthrough that avoided a potential nuclear catastrophe.