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World: U.S. Spy Agency Turns 50

  • Julie Moffett

Washington, 25 July 1997 (RFE/RL) -- On Saturday, exactly 50 years ago, the U.S. gave birth to its first permanent peacetime intelligence agency, the Central Intelligence Agency, better known as the CIA.

On July 26, 1947, then-U.S. President Harry Truman signed into law the agency's charter, assigning the CIA the relatively straightforward mission of keeping the government informed of foreign activities affecting the nation's interest.

Similar work had been conducted during World War II for the U.S. president by the Office of Strategic Services, which formed the nucleus of the new agency.

Over the past 50 years, the CIA's original mission has evolved, grown and been radically redefined, making the agency -- according to some experts -- one of the most powerful tools of American foreign policy.

The CIA's initial mission changed dramatically when communist leaders became successfully entrenched in Eastern Europe and mainland China in the late 1940s.

In line with President Harry Truman's policy of containing communism, a White House directive ordered the CIA to actively combat the "vicious covert activities of the Soviet Union" by engaging in political, paramilitary, economic and covert psychological operations.

From the years 1953 to 1961, as the Cold War escalated, the CIA became heavily involved in espionage. Records show the agency became narrowly focused on activities directed against the Soviet Union and its satellites in Eastern Europe.

During this time, the CIA vigorously recruited foreigners to spy for the U.S., directed propaganda and disinformation operations, andengaged in economic warfare, political action and counterintelligence.

Oleg Kalugin, Chief of Foreign Intelligence of the Soviet Union's KGB intelligence agency from 1973 to1980, who now lives in America, told RFE/RL that the CIA was considered by Soviet officials to be a "very strong, very powerful organization" and agents were ordered to do everything in their power to undermine its activities.

As the CIA's Cold War activities increased, so did its staff. The best and brightest students from top American universities were recruited by the agency. The CIA's budget was enlarged.

But it all came to a screeching halt in 1961 when the CIA suffered its first big operational failure and was subject to withering public humiliation.

It began when CIA executives convinced then U.S. President John Kennedy to forego a military operation to try to overthrow communist Cuban President Fidel Castro, and instead to send a covert team of CIA-trained, anti-revolutionary, Cuban exiles to do the job.

On April 17, 1961 over 1,000 men, armed with U.S. weapons, landed at the Bahta de Cochinos (Bay of Pigs) on the south coast of Cuba. They intended to cross the island to Havana, but were quickly stopped by Castro's army. By the time the fighting ended two days later, 90 had been killed and the rest were prisoners.

The failed operation had a profound negative effect on the way Americans viewed the agency. It also seriously embarrassed the Kennedy administration which then ordered an independent investigation of the CIA.

In 1975, the CIA again came under intense critical scrutiny from both the Congress and the U.S. President. A series of investigations determined that the CIA had been involved in "unlawful" acts of attempting to assassinate foreign figures and spying on American citizens.

As a result, permanent congressional committees were established to oversee CIA operations. But the oversight committees were sometimes kept in the dark about some of the agencies more secret activities.

Another embarrassing and serious controversy came to light in 1986, when it was discovered that the CIA was involved in arms sales to Iran, giving the profits to Nicaraguan anti-government rebels, in direct violation of U.S. law.

Highly publicized congressional hearings and criminal trials further damaged the CIA's reputation. Questions arose about the purpose of the agency and whether it was really needed. Morale at the CIA plummeted.

Its defenders have pointed out that the agency is unable to justify its usefulness by advertising the details of its successes in the Cold War many of which still remain locked in secret archives.

The agency was further rocked by scandals in the 1990s, the worst being the 1994 arrest of Aldrich Ames, director of the CIA's Soviet counterintelligence division.

Ames, the highest ranking U.S. official ever convicted of treason, had been selling sensitive information to Soviet intelligence for nearly a decade, reportedly in exchange for $2 million. Some experts said Ames caused the disruption of more than 100 CIA operations and the death of as many as 10 agents.

The situation at the agency was made more difficult by frequent changes of management. Since 1991, the CIA has had five directors, with not one remaining on the job for more than two years.

The current CIA director is George Tenet, 44 years old, a veteran agency employee who's appointment was confirmed by the Senate just two weeks ago.

Tenet held a press conference earlier this week to tell reporters that after floundering for years, his agency has a new, more focused mission "to pursue the hardest targets that threaten American interests around the world."

Tenet said these hard targets include drug lords and traffickers, people who engage in illegal weapons proliferation, and terrorists.

But Tenet will have to work with a leaner staff and a smaller budget compared to previous years. The exact figure is another secret. But according to press reports, it is still big enough -- more than $2 billion for the next fiscal year beginning in October. Tenet will also have to counter critics who believe the agency should return to its original mission of simply gathering and analyzing intelligence. But he says the CIA will continue to conduct covert activities.

"This is, at the end of the day, an espionage organization," Tenet said firmly. "We must generate information that is unique and makes a contribution against each of those targets. Otherwise, we don't know why we're here."

Tenet also said that another big part of his job will be to restore the agency's good name with a gentler and friendlier image to convince Americans that the CIA remains a vital element in protecting U.S. interests abroad.