Getting the CIA in working order

Using intelligence to foresee threats and forestall them, the CIA is finally working as intended.

The Central Intelligence Agency at Langley.
The Central Intelligence Agency at Langley. Credit: Sipa US / Alamy Stock Photo

A Question of Standing: The History of the CIA, Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones, Oxford University Press, 2022

On 16 April 1947, in a speech about labour relations, the long-time Presidential Advisor and financier Bernard Baruch stated: ‘we are today in the midst of a Cold War. Our enemies are to be found abroad and at home’. Three months later, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was born via the National Security Act of July 1947. The CIA would be responsible for gathering intelligence and acting against those enemies abroad. How the CIA emerged, and how it has developed since, is the subject of this detailed portrait.

In lively opening passages, Jeffreys-Jones charts the origins of intelligence gathering in the United States, reminding us that its importance was recognised from the outset (12 per cent of the federal budget under President George Washington went to paying spies). In his last Cabinet meeting before his assassination in 1865, President Abraham Lincoln established the first national spy agency, the United States Secret Service. At first this was used to combat moonshiners and counterfeiting but then switched to tracking down the Ku Klux Klan. Much of its early activity was focused on domestic threats.

In the Spanish-American war of 1898, and during the First World War, the Secret Service would achieve popularity countering foreign spies. The latter war also gave birth to two forerunners of the CIA, one a Central Intelligence Unit within the State Department, otherwise named U-1, which was tasked to ‘facilitate cooperation between existing agencies’, ‘suggest and facilitate spying operations’ and ‘communicate the results to the White House’. The other being ‘The Inquiry’, a group of scholars established by the President to use open sources to inform peace negotiations. In both cases, these groups were dominated by Ivy League alumni, ensuring they had elite access and prestige. They were also civilian.

In the interwar period, public support for espionage declined. The US Secretary of State, Henry Stimson, defunded eavesdropping, arguing that ‘Gentlemen do not read each other’s mail’. Yet, the Second World War demanded a reverse of this stance and gave rise to a more direct influence on the CIA in the form of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), set up in June 1942.

The OSS was the first permanent, centralised intelligence agency in US history. It was not just confined to intelligence gathering and analysis, but also undertook covert action and paramilitary operations. Many OSS veterans would later serve in the CIA. As Jeffreys-Jones puts it, they ‘looked back on their youthful wartime service as a time when anything seemed possible and justified in the fight against Hitler’s fascism’ and favoured a similar approach to fighting the Cold War. That approach would be in tension with the other reason the CIA was established: to avoid another Pearl Harbor. Having a permanent, centralised intelligence-gathering agency was meant to ensure that threats were identified and neutralised before they could damage the US.

Yet, it would be covert activities that would dominate the popular understanding of the CIA. In June 1948, NSC 10/2 set up an office of special projects to administer dirty tricks campaigns. In 1949, the Central Intelligence Agency Act allowed the CIA greater secrecy to fund its operations. Free to conduct its covert campaigns, the agency would spread black propaganda, subvert democratic leaders, and plan assassinations across the world. Jeffreys-Jones charts this programme and describes it as ‘a gradually evolving disaster’.

Notoriously, in August 1953, the CIA conspired with the British Secret Intelligence Service, MI6, to depose the Iranian prime minister, Mohammed Mosaddeq. In restoring the autocratic rule of the Pahlavi monarchy, the agency had produced a ‘reverse movie of the American Revolution, with George III back in control’, instituting a violently repressive regime responsible for torture and murder at the hands of the infamous SAVAK intelligence service.

In November 1953, the CIA drew up plans for a coup in Guatemala, where the democratically elected leader, Jacobo Árbenz, was threatening US interests by nationalising the assets of the United Fruit Company. The CIA devised a manual, ‘A Study of Assassination’, which ‘considered the merits of hammers and wrenches as murder weapons and pointed to the advantages of “severing the spinal cord in the cervical region”’. In effect, Jeffreys-Jones argues, President Eisenhower’s CIA had ‘devised what may have been the first-ever US program of murder as an official instrument of foreign policy’. Árbenz was deposed and Castillo Armas installed, leading to repression and destabilisation.

Other operations in Albania, Indonesia, and Syria were less successful, but that term began to lose its meaning when ‘successful’ coups damaged the reputation of the US in the eyes of the world. Having fought fascism in the Second World War and supported decolonisation afterwards, the US found itself alienated from newly decolonised members of the UN General Assembly. Jeffreys-Jones depicts this fall as deriving from the aggressive covert action programme, and particularly the disparities on race influencing when covert action was deemed appropriate and what form it would take. The author asserts that ‘US covert policy was particularly ruthless and objectionable in non-white regions of the world’. Non-European peoples, especially in strategically important areas, were often denied the right to choose a mixed economy or independent line in Cold War politics and the means of persuasion were more brutal.

The self-image of the US as a beacon of democracy was, for Jeffreys-Jones, undermined by these methods. When Salvador Allende won an election in Chile in 1970, Nixon is said to have ordered his CIA Director, Richard M. Helms, to ‘try for a coup to prevent his inauguration’. The CIA sought to destabilise the Chilean economy. After the assassination of the Chilean army commander in chief, Helms ‘congratulated local CIA officers on their “excellent” job of inspiring the surrogate killers’. Warnings from Congressmen that ‘the agency’s covert operations in Chile would turn world opinion against the United States’ were ignored.

In 1975, in the wake of Watergate (when former CIA employees engaged in domestic espionage against the Democratic party), three inquiries were launched into US intelligence activities. The Rockefeller Commission, appointed by President Ford, investigated the CIA’s activities within the US, the Senate’s Church Commission examined intelligence abuses in the round, and the House of Representatives’ Pike Committee, looked into effectiveness. Their findings were explosive. The scale of dirty tricks, assassinations, and subversion carried out by the agency shocked the public and led to severe curtailment of its operations. Assassinations were banned by executive order and greater transparency introduced. The CIA was characterised as ‘a rogue elephant on the rampage’, a politically convenient way of focusing blame on the agency rather than the politicians who had guided their activities.

In reality, the revelations were partial. The author notes that Chile was a focus of the Church Commission because of an agreement between the Chair and the CIA director William Colby to look at an illustrative example. Meanwhile, an 86-page section of the Rockefeller report on CIA assassination plots against foreign leaders was suppressed.

In the 1980s, the CIA produced well-informed analyses of the Soviet Union, and particularly its leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, but continued to promote assassinations despite the ban; as, allegedly, in the failed US-Saudi effort against the Hezbollah leader, Sheikh Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, in Beirut, which killed 80 people. In the following decade, with the Soviet Union gone, the need for the CIA began to be questioned. The treachery of some of its people, such as Aldrich Ames, attracted greater scrutiny. In addition, the Ivy League, male stereotype of CIA personnel seemed out of step with the modern world. The agency introduced reforms to ensure that gender, sexuality, and race, ceased to be bars to recruitment.

Nevertheless, when the threat from Islamist terrorism emerged, the CIA was ill-equipped to respond. Despite being from a ‘nation of immigrants’, the agency was always wary of exploiting its foreign-language speakers. In confronting the threat from Al-Qaeda, knowledge of key languages such as Pashto was virtually non-existent. Two Arabic language messages sent on 10 September 2001 warning ‘Tomorrow is zero hour’ went untranslated due to lack of expertise.

The shock of 9/11 gave rise to major intelligence reforms that threatened the CIA’s role as the primary conduit of intelligence advice. The appointment of a Director of National Intelligence to oversee the intelligence community, as well as a Homeland Security Council and Department of Homeland Security, risked relegating the status of the agency.

In their wake, the CIA ramped up its militarised covert activity, engaging in assassinations, drone attacks and kidnappings. Suspects were tortured for information and held in conditions that amounted to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, including the use of sleep deprivation, stress positions, waterboarding and rectal hydration. As a former CIA analyst cited by the author noted, the CIA ‘had reverted to…a warfighting agency…The CIA is now a reborn Office of Strategic Services’. Again, covert action was seen as affecting the US’ ‘standing in the world’.

This book is an excellent primer on the history of the CIA. Its key assertion, across the CIA’s seven decades, is that covert action was enormously damaging and counter-productive. The original purpose of the CIA was to inform the President about ‘events, developments and threats that he and his policymakers might not otherwise be able to perceive’. If they had stuck to that, Jeffreys-Jones’ account suggests, this litany of harm at home and abroad could have been avoided.

We can see that alternative vision in the way the CIA informed diplomacy towards Russia in 2021-2. CIA Director William Burns visited Moscow in November 2021, laying out his knowledge of the Russian troop build-up. In January and February 2022, UK and US intelligence agencies revealed Russian plans for false flag operations and predicted the plan of attack – undercutting Russian efforts to depict this as a self-defence operation. Since then, the CIA has briefed the Ukrainians on Russia’s battle plans during the conflict and played an important role in the intelligence struggle. Using intelligence to foresee threats and forestall them, the CIA is finally working as intended.


Jamie Gaskarth