History of the CIA
Foreign intelligence has been important to the United States since the days of George Washington, but it’s only been since World War II that such efforts have been coordinated on a government-wide level. Even before Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was concerned about America’s deficient intelligence efforts. He was particularly concerned about the need for the State Department and War Department to cooperate better and adopt a more strategic view of operations. With that goal in mind, Roosevelt asked New York attorney and World War I hero William J. Donovan to draft a plan for a new intelligence service.
In July 1941, Roosevelt appointed Donovan as the Coordinator of Information (COI) to direct the nation’s first peacetime, non-departmental intelligence organization. But America’s entry into World War II that same December prompted new thinking about the role of the COI. The result was the formation of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in June 1942. The mandate of the OSS was to collect and analyze strategic information required by the Joint Chiefs of Staff and to conduct special operations not assigned to other agencies.
During the war, the OSS supplied policymakers with intelligence that played an important role in positively aiding military campaigns. The OSS shared jurisdiction over foreign intelligence activities with the FBI. (The FBI had been responsible for this work in Latin America since 1940.) Meanwhile, the military branches conducted intelligence operations in their areas of responsibility.
As World War II wound down with the American and allied victory, there was sentiment throughout the United States to return to normalcy and demobilize wartime agencies quickly, agencies like the OSS. Donovan’s civilian and military rivals feared he might win his campaign to create a peacetime intelligence service modeled on the OSS. But President Harry S. Truman, who succeeded Roosevelt in April 1945, felt no obligation to the OSS after the war.
Technically abolished in October 1945, the OSS’s analysis, collection, and counterintelligence services were transferred to the State and War departments, but on a much smaller scale.
With the threat of the powerful communist Soviet Union and the Cold War looming, President Truman soon recognized the need for a centralized intelligence system, even in peacetime. By disbanding the OSS, Truman had eliminated any central source of intelligence, and the president and other national leaders wanted an agency that would be independent of any of the policymaking branches of government.
Truman listened to advice from Donovan and Admiral William D. Leahy, who helped hammer out details of the new agency. Accommodating the views of the military services, the State Department, and the FBI, Truman established the Central Intelligence Group (CIG) in January 1946.
The CIG was formed to fulfill two missions: to provide strategic warning and to conduct important clandestine activities. Unlike the OSS, the CIG had access to all-source intelligence. The CIG also functioned under the direction of a National Intelligence Authority, composed of a presidential representative and the secretaries of State, War, and the Navy.
Rear Admiral Sidney W. Souers, USNR (United States Navy Reserve), who was the first Deputy Chief of Naval Intelligence, was appointed the first Director of Central Intelligence.
Twenty months later, the National Intelligence Authority and the CIG were disbanded. Under the provisions of the National Security Act of 1947, the National Security Council (NSC) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) were created. The Act charged the CIA with coordinating the nation’s intelligence activities and correlating, evaluating, and disseminating intelligence that affects national security. The Agency also was tasked to perform other duties and functions related to intelligence that the NSC might direct.
The Act created a Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) as head of the Intelligence Community, head of the CIA, and principal intelligence adviser to the president, with the additional responsibility of safeguarding intelligence sources and methods.
The 1947 Act also prohibited the CIA from engaging in law enforcement activity and restricted its internal security functions. The CIA carries out its responsibilities subject to various directives and controls by the president and the NSC.
In 1949, the Central Intelligence Agency Act was passed, supplementing the 1947 Act, granting the Agency more powers. The CIA was permitted to use confidential fiscal and administrative procedures and the Agency was exempted from many of the usual limitations on expenditures. The CIA funds could now be included in budgets of other departments and then transferred to the Agency without restrictions, ensuring the secrecy of the CIA’s budget, an important consideration in covert operations.
In 1953, Congress amended the National Security Act to provide for the appointment of the Deputy Director of Central Intelligence (DDCI) by the president with the advice and consent of the Senate. The amendment also stated commissioned officers of the armed forces, whether active or retired, could not occupy both DCI and DDCI positions at the same time. The DDCI assisted the director and also exercised the powers of the director during the DCI’s absence.
Under the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004, the positions of DCI and DDCI were abolished, and the job of Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (D/CIA) was established.
Congressional oversight has existed to varying degrees throughout the CIA’s existence. Today, the CIA reports regularly to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. The Intelligence Oversight Act of 1980 and various Executive Orders dictated this structure.
The Agency reports regularly to the Defense Subcommittees of the Appropriations Committees in both houses of Congress. Moreover, the Agency provides substantive briefings to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, and the Armed Services Committees in both bodies, as well as other committees and individual members.