After Islamic extremists hijacked four commercial airliners and deliberately crashed three of them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, many commentators noted that America would never be the same. Time will tell if those observers prove correct, but one thing is for sure: The government agencies responsible for national security will never be the same. Indeed, although many analysts argue that America’s intelligence agencies could not have prevented such a well-orchestrated attack, many people immediately began to blame the CIA for the tragedy. They wanted an accounting of the CIA’s failure to predict and prevent the attack and called for changes in the way the CIA conducts business. As Jack Citrin, a professor of political science at the University of California at Berkeley, puts it, “People are asking, ‘Why didn’t [U.S. intelligence agencies] prevent this from happening? Were they asleep at the wheel?’” A May 2002 Gallup poll found that only 20 percent of respondents had a very positive view of the CIA. Recent criticisms leveled at the CIA are hardly new, however. In fact, the agency has had a troubled history almost since its inception.
The CIA was created in 1947 by President Harry S. Truman as a component of the National Security Act, which also created the Defense Department and the National Security Council. Truman wanted an agency that would collect, synthesize, and analyze information about other nations, especially America’s enemies, so that the United States would never again be caught off guard as it had been when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Intelligence gathering did not begin with the CIA’s creation, however. In fact, the United States had conducted espionage as far back as the Revolutionary War, and the first formal intelligence agencies, which were run by the military, were created in the 1880s. In addition, during World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), which was charged with collecting intelligence and engaging in covert action. The OSS, however, was abolished when World War II ended.
As Truman envisioned it, the CIA’s job was to coordinate the nation’s intelligence activities and correlate, evaluate, and disseminate intelligence that affected national security. In essence, the CIA works for the president, assisting the administration in making foreign policy decisions. Very quickly, the CIA became America’s front line in its war against communism. During the Cold War, the CIA was charged with monitoring Soviet weapons capabilities using spy planes, ships, and satellites. The agency also planned covert operations in an attempt to influence the political processes in Communist countries.
Not long into the CIA’s war against communism, the agency suffered its first major debacle, the Bay of Pigs. In 1961, the CIA covertly helped Cuban exiles invade Cuba in an attempt to oust Communist leader Fidel Castro. The invasion was a failure, however, and Castro’s forces routed the exiles. The CIA was criticized on the one hand for failing to remove Castro from power and on the other hand for engaging in covert operations, which are always controversial. Simultaneously, the agency was being represented as an ineffectual government bureaucracy and an unaccountable behemoth violating the foundations of an open society.
The first major investigation into CIA wrongdoing occurred during the Cold War in 1975. Senator Frank Church of Idaho led a special investigation that uncovered systematic abuse within the agency, including spying on U.S. citizens and plotting to assassinate foreign leaders such as Castro and Congolese premier Patrice Lumumba. The committee released a damning report, in which Church called the CIA “a rogue elephant rampaging out of control.” The Church committee report also prompted President Gerald Ford to sign an executive order that banned U.S. officials from carrying out or aiding in assassinations.
Another investigation into CIA wrongdoing that began during the Cold War was conducted by a reporter named Gary Webb, who eventually published his findings in a series for the San Jose Mercury News. Webb’s series, called Dark Alliance, was later made into a book by the same name; it alleged that the CIA was involved in drug trafficking. Webb charged that drug traffickers were selling crack cocaine to poor Los Angeles neighborhoods in the 1980s and funneling the profits to the Nicaragua Contras, whom the CIA was helping to overthrow the Communist Sandinista regime. According to Webb, the CIA was aware of those transactions, and did nothing to stop them. Webb’s accusations prompted the CIA to conduct an internal investigation, the report of which was finally published in 1998. The CIA considered the report an absolution of any wrongdoing in the Contra-cocaine affair, despite Webb’s insistence to the contrary.
Major CIA fiascoes did not end with the Cold War. In fact, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 began an era of systematic U.S. intelligence failures. The first criticism leveled at the CIA during this post–Cold War era was that the CIA had failed to predict the demise of the Soviet Union. Critics voiced concern that if the agency lacked crucial intelligence concerning the viability of the one nation on which it had spent most of its resources monitoring, things did not bode well for the agency’s ability to respond to new threats developing after the Cold War. Indeed, subsequent intelligence failures revealed a CIA mired in Cold War intelligence methods and ill-equipped to handle new threats. For one thing, the CIA still considered communism—not terrorism—the most serious threat to U.S. security, and began focusing on China rather than the Middle East. Moreover, the methods that the CIA was using had been developed to deal with one major state enemy and its sphere of influence. The CIA had become reliant on sophisticated technology such as listening devices that worked effectively when enemies held counsel with one another in conference rooms. However, the CIA’s technology proved virtually useless in monitoring the activities of roving bands of terrorists. In addition, while it had been relatively easy to bribe disgruntled Soviet workers to spy on their government on behalf of the United States, the CIA found that terrorist cells were tightly knit and hard to infiltrate.
Perhaps the most important weakness was that CIA agents them- selves seemed ill-suited to operate in the new era. For example, many CIA operatives could speak fluent Russian, but what was now needed were agents who could speak Middle Eastern languages, such as Arabic. Many agents also found the prospect of infiltrating terrorist cells—which often requires living among the terrorists in filth, poverty, and danger—highly undesirable. Indeed, many critics accuse CIA agents of getting soft. Many contend that CIA employees began to care more about their paychecks and retirement benefits than serving their country.
In part because of the CIA’s resistance to change, the agency experienced additional intelligence gaffes in the post–Cold War era. For example, it took nine years to arrest CIA agent Aldrich Ames for spying for the Soviet Union. In a comment about the affair, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence characterized the CIA as “a bureaucracy excessively tolerant of serious personal and professional misconduct among its employees.”
In addition, it was revealed in 1995 that Guatemalan military officials associated with the CIA were involved in murdering U.S. citizens. This revelation prompted the CIA to establish guidelines on the use of sources having a history of human rights abuses. Also, in May 1998, the CIA failed to detect India’s nuclear weapons testing, an oversight that Alabama senator Richard Shelby called “a colossal failure of our intelligence agencies.” India’s success in developing and testing nuclear weapons led to a mini arms race between India and Pakistan that threatens nuclear security worldwide. In addition, many critics blame the CIA for the bombing of what the agency thought was a chemical weapons factory in Khartoum, Sudan, in 1998. In May 1999, the CIA was implicated in the errant bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, during the campaign to force Serbs out of Kosovo. CIA director George Tenet said of the bombing, “It was a major error.” What has become for many the most egregious intelligence failure of all time, however, is the September 11 terrorist attacks.
In the aftermath of the attacks, the CIA has undergone significant change. With the passage of the USA-PATRIOT Act in October 2001, the CIA has been granted expanded powers, including increased latitude in information gathering on U.S. citizens. The CIA is now permitted to monitor the Internet activity and telephone conversations of suspected terrorists, for example. In addition, information gleaned from grand jury proceedings and criminal investigations is now to be shared with the CIA.
Many civil rights groups fear that these new powers will add to increased wrongdoing and reduced accountability. Stanford history professor Barton Bernstein says, “Over the years, [CIA personnel] have been malevolent, and in the short run they have often been inept. So to give them more power and more resources and less accountability seems rather dangerous.” In contrast, supporters believe that the changes are necessary to facilitate communication between the FBI, the CIA, and other agencies. Many believe that a lack of cooperation and communication between America’s various law enforcement and intelligence agencies is largely responsible for the September 11 attacks. As San Francisco Chronicle reporter Louis Freedberg explains, “Defenders of [intelligence] agencies say it is unfair to lump the missteps together to paint a broad picture of incompetence. Each mistake has separate roots, often in different branches and departments of various intelligence agencies.”
Many analysts feel that the changes already made within the intelligence community do not go far enough. They call for a complete restructuring of America’s intelligence agencies. The cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security proposed by President George W. Bush in June 2002 may play a significant role in such a reorganization. Other observers argue that the CIA should be expanded, which would necessitate the allocation of more federal money to the agency. Along the same lines, some analysts contend that the ban on assassinations and the regulations regarding the recruitment of sources with histories of human rights abuses should be rescinded. Many are also talking about allowing the CIA to use torture. These observers believe that restrictions on assassinations, recruitment, and torture hamper the CIA’s ability to infiltrate and abolish terrorist cells.
The sense of security that had developed during an era of relative peace and prosperity came abruptly to an end as the twin towers collapsed in September 2001. It is certainly no surprise that Americans began to wonder why the CIA had not protected them from the Islamic terrorists bent on their destruction. In At Issue: The CIA, professors, government officials, civil rights activists, and journalists debate whether or not the CIA was responsible for the terrorist attacks on America and how the agency should change in response to these new threats to America’s security. Realistic or not, Americans expect the CIA to protect them from such tragedies on their soil. Time will tell whether the CIA will succeed in meeting these expectations or whether its troubled history will continue.