Ancient history

The CIA, from its creation to September 11

The CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) is the main intelligence agency of the United States, created in 1947, at the same time as the Security Council (National Security Council). It is responsible for intelligence collection abroad, counterintelligence outside the United States, development and research in the field of information collection. A formidable weapon during the Cold War, sometimes mythologized or decried, the CIA will be unable to prevent the attacks of September 11, 2001, which will constitute its most serious failure.

At the origin of the creation of the CIA:Pearl Harbor

In order to fully understand the issues surrounding the creation of the CIA in 1947, it is first necessary to recall the intelligence situation in the United States. Curiously, before the Second World War, espionage did not have a good press across the Atlantic. If Roosevelt says he does not like espionage, he himself has his own network of informants made up of relatives who provide him with most of his information. At the same time, the FBI managed to weave a few networks in Latin America, to which must be added the networks of the intelligence services of the Navy and the Ministry of War. This is however insufficient:the English, much more advanced in terms of intelligence gathering, will then lavish numerous advices to their American counterparts and contribute to the foundation, in 1942, of the ancestor of the CIA, the OSS.

The creation of this agency responds to the need to centralize intelligence in order to increase its efficiency and make it easier to use. And for good reason, a few months earlier, on December 7, 1941, the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor took place:the American services had then been unable to foresee and anticipate this tragic event. The management of the OSS was then entrusted to Donovan, perceived as the "father of American intelligence", despite the reluctance of the Army. Thus was born the first civil service, which not only carried out collection and analysis actions by enlisting the services of numerous academics and the best specialists, but also took part in sabotage actions behind enemy lines and made contact with the different networks of resistance. After the victory, in 1945, the OSS was finally dissolved.

Several steps will have to be taken before the CIA comes into being. With the start of the Cold War and Truman's desire to implement his policy of containment, American power must equip itself with an effective intelligence service. But the debates are fierce in Congress, frightened by the prospect of seeing the birth of a too powerful centralizing service. After the creation in 1946 of a first body responsible for planning and organizing intelligence in cooperation with the other American intelligence services, the Central Intelligence Agency was created in 1947 by means of the National Security Act. Its symbols:the Shield, as the first rampart of America, the Eagle and the star.

The “Cold War Ministry” and secret wars

The first mission of the CIA, initially entrusted to the charismatic Vandenberg then to the former soldier Hillenkoetter, will therefore be to coordinate the work of the various intelligence services. Then, will be added different functions such as espionage and covert actions (clandestine actions), and the daily submission of reports directly to the President, through a gradual increase in the agency's budget. The first major clandestine action was then to prevent at all costs an electoral victory for the Communist Party in Italy, a mission accomplished by the financial support given to the Christian-Democrat Party. The OPC – section of the CIA in charge of clandestine operations – will carry out a series of actions in the Soviet sphere, by financing various paramilitary groups in Ukraine, Poland and Albania. It is a failure, among others. One of which was moreover much more resounding:in 1949, the first Soviet nuclear bomb exploded while the CIA estimated that the USSR would possess this weapon only in 1953. The CIA failed once again, not seeing coming the Korean War. This series of failures leads Hillenkoetter to resign, giving way to Walter Badel Smith, again a soldier.

The CIA must be able to anticipate and foresee, so that the President can make the decisions. For the agency to carry out its mission, its budget is increased, many scientists, academics and historians will put themselves at its service. An increasing place is therefore given to analysis. A scientific section is also set up, responsible for exploring the question of mental control through experiments carried out on prisoners or prostitutes. Also Smith succeeds in setting up a monopoly of the CIA on the clandestine actions within the community of the information. The agency therefore began to take shape in the 1950s, appearing as a veritable “Ministry of the Cold War”. He set up extensive collaboration with many foreign intelligence services:Israeli, German and English.

A new step is taken with the election of D. Eisenhower as President of the United States. The latter appoints Allen Dulles at the head of the CIA, who will remain as one of the most outstanding directors of the agency. He was to act in the continuity of his predecessor, multiplying clandestine operations, the most striking of which was the coup d'etat in Guatemala in 1954. These successes enabled the Agency to obtain the support of the White House and even of the Congress. At the same time, technical intelligence developed, with the commissioning of the U2 – a spy plane – which flew over the USSR on several occasions between 1956 and 1960, until the crash of the U2 in enemy territory, causing a crisis diplomatic.

The tarnishing of the image of the CIA

Clandestine operations can sometimes turn out to be a double-edged sword. Also Allen Dulles will he be sacrificed after the failure of the Bay of Pigs, an operation aimed at overthrowing Fidel Castro, certainly organized by the CIA, but with firm support from JFK. This is the ambivalent link between the White House and the director of the CIA:in the event of failure, the director of the agency is deemed responsible, completely clearing the President of the conduct and consequences of the operations. After the passage of McCone condemned by its divergences of point of view on the war of Vietnam, the load of director is entrusted to Helms, a discreet man. The press and various movements will be spied on or even manipulated on American territory, at a time when pacifist movements are reaching a paroxysmal level of activity:the CIA is stepping outside its legal framework of action. It will then be shaken on the one hand by the revelation of this affair in the press by the director of the CIA, William Colby and on the other hand by the Watergate affair.

So much so that in 1975, the Representatives aimed to set up close surveillance of its activities:the CIA, virulently criticized by many elected officials, saw its image deteriorate and its usefulness questioned.

The “Renaissance” of the CIA

The CIA is in crisis, morale is low in Langley, the agency's headquarters. To remedy this, George H. Bush is appointed Director:he is a politician and therefore seems able to resist the growing pressure from the media and Congress. He is an appreciated man, who manages both to restore a climate of confidence within the CIA while combining with the new requirements of legality and parliamentary control. Despite everything, it is not kept by Jimmy Carter, new President in 1977 who attaches little importance to intelligence and seems to despise clandestine actions. He sets up Turner, quickly unpopular in the CIA, dealing more with the Intelligence Community than with the agency. At the end of his mandate, Carter will still have to resolve to resort to intelligence:to bring Egypt and Israel closer together, to organize clandestine actions in Afghanistan, or even in Iran in the face of the tumults of the Islamic Revolution.

A new impetus was given with the election of Ronald Reagan, who wished, in the words of Frank Daninos, to “untie the chains of the CIA”, in order to give himself all the means to defeat the USSR. The new director, Casey, with a growing budget and staff, revives the clandestine actions. However, the image of the agency is tarnished by the Iran-Contra affair:in order to free the hostages of the American embassy, ​​Reagan would have allowed, through the intermediary of the CIA, Iran to sell weapons in Lebanon.

Reagan is not splashed by this case, and as always, the responsibility lies with the Director of the CIA. But Casey dies suddenly, William Webster, a rigorous lawyer from the FBI, takes over. Placing its action within a legal framework, it strengthens cooperation between the CIA and the FBI. Then, in 1991, came the fall of the USSR:it was a victory to which the CIA would certainly have contributed, but which also revived the debate on the usefulness of the agency, while the United States no longer seemed to have an enemy. Critics resurface:the CIA was of little use during the First Gulf War and does not grasp new terrorist threats. Robert Gates, new director, will try to reform the CIA in order to adapt to the new configurations.

A difficult adaptation to new challenges

The 1990s was a decade of continuing crisis for the CIA. In 1994, a bomb exploded in the basement of the World Trade Center, in 1998 the first Indian nuclear bomb exploded:the eyes of the CIA no longer saw clearly. And for good reason, its budget and its staff are decreasing. To top it off, the FBI enters the CIA to take control of counter-terrorism, until the staff pushes a director (Deutch) to resign. The Pentagon, which for almost 50 years had accepted the pre-eminence of the CIA in intelligence matters, is gradually trying to gain the upper hand over the Agency, taking advantage of this moment of weakness.

A new director is called, it's the 5th in 6 years:it's about Tenet. This one is favored by CIA staff, and intends to restore an important place to the Operations Department. Thus several plans are drawn up to assassinate bin Laden, but are not implemented by the risks that would be incurred. Kept by Bush, in August 2001 it submitted a report to the President announcing the possibility of an attack on American territory. The sequel is known, ending in the attacks of September 11, 2001. Conspiracy theories are born, despite the numerous declassifications which respond to a need for transparency, before the many dysfunctions and poor collaboration between the FBI and CIA. The bankruptcy is total for the American intelligence, it will be necessary to transform the CIA.

George W. Bush goes to Langley, increases the budget by 50% and boosts recruitment:the CIA must spearhead the war on terrorism and the defense of the American empire. The Iraqi question will therefore mobilize CIA analysts, who must demonstrate that Hussein possesses weapons of mass destruction. An episode at the origin of a new disagreement between Langley and the White House, causing the resignation of the director, Tenet.

In December 2004, a law was passed to reform American intelligence, of which the CIA was to be the big loser. The director of the CIA therefore loses his function as coordinator of American intelligence, in favor of a director of national intelligence (DNI) who oversees all the services. However, the CIA is reinforced in the field of clandestine actions, these being centralized from Langley. The CIA then entered a new era...

Founded after the shock of a surprise attack, in an America emerging from isolationism, the CIA presents an ambivalent character. There is in fine several CIAs:that of the myths, built from the coups in which the CIA took part (Guatemala in 1954, Chile in 1973), making the CIA a superpowerful agency with infinite tentacles; a CIA decried, by the scandalous experiments in which it was able to indulge and which sparked a number of debates, including among the American political class. The CIA has been a useful instrument of American foreign policy and the fight against communism, and, if the transition was difficult after the fall of the USSR, it still appears as a major American intelligence institution, contributing to the protection of the American people and the defense of their interests throughout the planet.


- Frank DANINOS, CIA. A political history from 1947 to the present day, Paris, Tallendier, 2007

- Olivier FORCADE, The secret and the power. Special services in the 19th and 20th centuries, Amiens, Encrage, 2007