The CIA has been in the news a lot recently. And while you have most likely heard of it, there is still a lot of confusion about just what exactly this organization is and does. What is the CIA, and what role does it play in American government?
What is the CIA?
The CIA is pretty well known by pretty much anyone, and if you listen to Edward Snowden, everyone is also pretty well known to them. Despite their prominent role throughout history, in film, and on television, many people still aren’t exactly sure what the CIA is and what they do. Given how important a role they play in society, it would be a good idea to get a better understanding of this important organization.
The Central Intelligence Agency
The acronym “CIA” stands for Central Intelligence Agency. The CIA operates as the civilian foreign intelligence service of the US government. It is responsible for gathering, processing, and analyzing national security information collected from around the world.
The CIA is one of the main members of the US Intelligence Community, and reports directly to the Director of National Intelligence. The CIA’s main focus is to provide intelligence for the President and Cabinet, so they can have all the facts necessary when making important decisions.
The CIA has no law enforcement function, unlike the domestic Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Instead, they primarily focus on gathering intelligence from overseas. Furthermore, the CIA is the only agency allowed by US law to carry out and oversee covert operations at the request of the President.
The CIA describes what they do as follows:
“CIA’s primary mission is to collect, analyze, evaluate, and disseminate foreign intelligence to assist the President and senior US government policymakers in making decisions relating to national security.” – CIA Website
History of the CIA
When World War II was just beginning, there was no real direction or coordination when it came to collecting national security information. Basically, the Navy, FBI, Army, and State Department were all gathering information more or less at random.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt found himself frustrated by this lack of order. In July, 1941, he would establish the Office of the Coordinator of Information, or COI. This was meant to streamline all intelligence collection efforts. To lead this organization, he picked a World War I hero named William “Wild Bill” Donovan.
Office of the Coordinator of Information
As American involvement in World War II intensified, Donovan would propose that the COI should move under the leadership of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the body of senior uniformed leaders in the United States Department of Defense who advise the President. This was because Donovan wanted to ensure military support of the COI.
President Roosevelt would ultimately agree, but decided to keep a portion of the COI’s assets outside of military reach. Roosevelt moved half of the COI’s staff over to the Office of War Information. In June, 1942, what was leftover of the COI went on to become the Office of Strategic Services, or OSS. The name was changed to suit Donovan’s wish for a title that reflected strategy.
Office of Strategic Services
It was never expected that the OSS would continue to operate after the war, even though Donovan insisted on the value of intelligence even during peacetime. Once President Truman took office in August, 1945, he almost immediately dismantled the OSS.
Donovan was relieved of his duties. However, his former Deputy was asked to stay on and help preserve both the Counterintelligence Branch and the Secret Intelligence Branch of the old OSS. These branches were both moved to the War Department in a new office called the Strategic Services Unit (SSU).
Strategic Service Unit
After the SSU was formed, they would take over the former OSS posts in Paris, Rome, Vienna, Cairo, Chungking, London, and more. They would also be given a host of smaller posts while more permanent solutions were found.
Eventually, the Deputy Chief of Naval Intelligence, Rear Admiral Sidney Souers, would be put in charge as Executive Secretary of a new organization known as the CIG (Central Intelligence Group), which would integrate completely with the SSU.
Central Intelligence Group
The CIG was responsible for planning and evaluating intelligence. They would also acquire authority to conduct independent research. This was a key development in the CIG, as it would no longer be just coordinating information from government entities, but also producing its own intelligence.
Despite its newfound freedoms, the organization felt it was still too constrained to operate at the high level it wanted, often facing resistance from the Department of State and the armed services.
In 1947, the National Security Act was signed, creating the Central Intelligence Agency, or CIA. The CIA officially came into existence on September 18th, 1947. President Truman appointed the Deputy Director of the CIG, Roscoe H. Hillenkoetter, as the first Director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
Since its founding, the CIA has increasingly expanded its role, even conducting covert paramilitary operations in other countries. Because of the power this organization wields, and the secrecy under which it operates, the CIA has been the subject of many controversies and conspiracy theories over the years (some of which have proven to be true). Today, the organization has been heavily politicized, and though the agency has had its share of failures and scandals, it remains an important organization in the protection of national security.