Central Intelligence Act 1949
Central Intelligence Act 1949

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Central Intelligence Act 194974 years ago this summer, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was not created; The agency was established in 1947 on a small plot of a giant National Security Act of 1947. However, the 1949 Act set the stage for what the agency would become in later decades by exempting it from public disclosure of its operations, budget, and staff. The fact that almost two years passed between the founding of the agency and the passage of legislation allowing it to conduct its activities without public disclosure may seem surprising to those familiar with what the CIA will be doing, but this delay speaks to the ambiguity and uncertainty within Congress, the executive branch, and the national security establishment on what kind of agency the CIA should be and what should be expected of it. It took a long and winding road to come to the point that something like the CIA Act of 1949 could become law.

Henry Stimson. Harris and Ewing (c. 1940) Library of Congress.

When the CIA was created, there was no special intelligence tradition in the United States. While examples of espionage can be found throughout U.S. history (for more information, see the TAH volume, US foreign policy before 1899), there was no consistency in American intelligence arrangements; as with the army itself, the federal government tended to collect what it needed on an ad hoc basis in the face of a crisis. The situation began to change when, at the end of the 19th century, the army and navy created their own intelligence services.th century, but they tended to focus on their specific technical areas and were feared by officers as a dead end career path. The so-called “Black Chamber”, jointly funded by the US Army and the State Department, lasted from 1919 to 1929 and made significant cryptological advances before being shut down. Secretary of State Henry Stimson. Stimson’s apocryphal claim that “gentlemen don’t read each other’s mail”, whether he actually said it or not, reflected the usual U.S. attitude towards espionage as something tasteless and unpleasant, as something that the corrupt and corrupt states of Europe practice, and not something democratic. must approve.

World War II changed this dynamic, as it did many other things in American society and government. After the US entered the war Office of Strategic Services was created under the guidance William “Wild Bill” Donovan. Donovan took on a number of responsibilities and pushed for his new organization to become a vital part of the American defense establishment. Although his organization is often referred to as the direct ancestor of the CIA, the path from one to the other was not an easy one. The OSS was disbanded immediately after the end of World War II; partly this dissolution was due to petty bureaucratic concerns. The military intelligence services were outraged at the idea of ​​a separate civilian agency, and J. Edgar Hoover feared that the OSS would become a rival to his FBI. Donovan was trusted by Franklin Roosevelt, but not by Harry Truman. These opponents capitalized on the distrust that many Americans had in the idea of ​​an intelligence agency and the fear that it would create an “American Gestapo”, but did not create one. Donovan and many OSS veterans continued to champion their vision of a broad, active intelligence service, but most of them had to do so outside the civil service. The components of the OSS were either transferred to other departments or closed.

However, even without the OSS, Truman and his advisers recognized the importance of coordination among existing intelligence units. After the shock at Pearl Harbor, American distrust of the government intelligence service had to compete with the determination that the United States would never let such a surprise attack hit them again. Instead of the OSS, the Truman administration established Central Intelligence Group (CIG) led by the Director of Central Intelligence (DCI). The DCI name outlived the CIG; while future DCIs were often referred to as “Director of the CIA”, this title reflected the fact that the DCI had the responsibility of coordinating the activities of each agency and organization, which included what became known as the Intelligence Community (IC). (This changed after 9/11 with the introduction of the Director of National Intelligence.)

William Joseph Donovan. (New York: Bain News Services, July 13, 1929) Library of Congress,

The CIG was the idea of ​​a “clearing house” for intelligence management, a place where the product collected by the rest of the IC would be interpreted and analyzed. However, problems with the concept quickly became apparent. Funding for the CIG came from various departments that included elements of the IC, rather than directly from Congress. This has always been a secondary priority. His high positions were considered career killers; the creation of the CIA in 1947 was supposed to change this dynamic, but it remained a weak agency.

At the same time, tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union became increasingly serious, intractable, and public. As the United States began its efforts to contain the Soviet Union, and Soviet control over Eastern Europe grew stronger, proponents of Donovan’s OSS ideal began calling for efforts to transform the CIA from a purely analysis agency into an espionage agency. and secret activities. Many in the government agreed, and the CIA began to conduct limited covert operations; although its founding charter was short, the last clause of its duties directed it to carry out “all other functions and duties” related to intelligence, in accordance with the instructions of the National Security Council, a stretchy phrase that was the legal basis for the further activities of the CIA. However, DCI Roscoe Hillenkotter was considered a weak leader and during his tenure the CIA was often criticized for being ineffective.

George Kennan, the architect of containment, called for what he called “political warfare”; psychological operations, influence campaigns, and the like to put the Soviet Union on the defensive. He led the creation of the indirectly named Policy Coordination Office (OPC), jointly funded by the State Department and the CIA, but functionally independent of both. Its leader, Frank Wisner, began to think not only about Kennan’s containment doctrine, but also about trying to push back the Iron Curtain through unconventional, covert warfare. However, the OPC also suffered many failures, although its failures were much more secretive than those of the CIA. All the while, the international situation became increasingly threatening, especially after the coup in Czechoslovakia in 1948, backed by the Soviet Union, which solidified the stalemate between Western and Eastern Europe.

The American public’s wariness of the intelligence services became a secondary consideration to the need for an organization as active and powerful as Wild Bill Donovan wanted. The Central Intelligence Act of 1949 was a decisive step in achieving this goal. When Hillenkoetter was replaced after the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950 by Dwight Eisenhower’s former chief of staff, Walter Beadle Smith, the agency has acquired an experienced, serious DCI. Smith used the increased power he gained from the 1949 act to bring the OPC under his tight control. He also brought in more OSS veterans, solidifying the CIA as his successor.

Allen W. Dulles (NARA, 306-PS-59-17740

One of these OSS veterans became Smith’s deputy and successor. Allen Dulles. During the long reign of Dulles from 1953 to 1961, the CIA became everything Donovan could dream of thanks to the Central Intelligence Act of 1949. However, the legacy of this change is, to say the least, controversial. Within the agency, operations began to absorb more and more resources, and the operations department became far more powerful than the analysis department, undermining the agency’s primary purpose. The lack of disclosure has allowed the executive branch to use the agency for a variety of purposes, from funding cultural organizations to fight communists in the realm of ideas, to extreme medical experiments on unsuspecting American citizens, the most notorious of which is doses of LSD to humans. determine its usefulness as a brainwashing tool. It was used to overthrow governments that were thought likely to become communist. Despite very real and noteworthy successes in espionage and analysis, the CIA became more famous or infamous for its covert activities and was increasingly controversial in the United States.

The CIA Act of 1949 was passed when the threat from the Soviet Union was perceived as extreme, but as that threat dwindled in the 1970s, more calls for oversight arose. When it emerged that the CIA had been monitoring the anti-Vietnam War movement in the United States in violation of its charter, Congress opened an investigation into the agency. They ended up creating new oversight mechanisms, which also sparked controversy, to try to strike a better balance than the 1949 law created between the need for security in a dangerous world and the need for constitutional government to be held accountable for its performance.