A Look Back …Creating the CIA: A New Instrument of Government
At the beginning of the Cold War, looking back to the lessons of Pearl Harbor, Congress and President Harry S. Truman approved the creation of a peacetime intelligence service. This new organization, deliberately fashioned to be independent of all the Cabinet departments and military services, was to provide senior U.S. policymakers with comprehensive judgments on political and military issues and to coordinate clandestine activities overseas.
Washington thus created an agency dedicated to collecting and analyzing the secrets of actual or potential adversaries. Intelligence had become an essential permanent component of America’s national security structure.
America's Intelligence Makeover
The U.S. government did not easily embrace worldwide intelligence activities after World War I. Washington had never employed spy networks outside of wartime. But senior planners were concerned and influenced by the global ambitions of the Soviet Union. The recognition that America was facing powerful new threats spurred efforts to maintain clandestine assets and actively seek out enemy secrets.
America's intelligence makeover was more complicated than simply recruiting agents.
The wartime Office of Strategic Services (OSS), headed by the dynamic William J. “Wild Bill” Donovan, provided one model for a foreign intelligence organization. The OSS conducted espionage, analysis, covert action and counterintelligence. But, deemed unnecessary and unworkable at war’s end by President Truman, the OSS was disbanded in October 1945. Many of its responsibilities were transferred to the Departments of War and State.
Establishing the Central Intelligence Group
Convinced of the need for an independent intelligence organization, Truman established the Central Intelligence Group (CIG) in January 1946. The CIG, headed by a Director of Central Intelligence (DCI), was responsible for “coordination, planning, evaluation, and dissemination of intelligence,” as well as the provision of “services of common concern.”
Funding and staff would come from existing government organizations, which would continue to develop their own intelligence products. The military and State Department maintained their independent intelligence capabilities and access to the President and other senior government leaders.
The new DCI, Rear Adm. Sidney S. Souers, with no budget or personnel authority, was hardly in a position to take control of U.S. intelligence. Indeed, observed a 1976 Congressional report, “institutional resistance made implementation virtually impossible. The military intelligence services jealously guarded both their information and what they believed were their prerogatives in providing policy guidance to the President, making CIG's primary mission an exercise in futility.”
Lt. Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg, appointed DCI in June 1946, brought greater rank, influence and bureaucratic savvy to CIG. Within months, Vandenberg strengthened the analytical Office of Research and Evaluation (ORE) and, flush with funding and personnel authorizations, increased CIG manning by threefold to some 400 employees. At the same time, the CIG received authority to establish a clandestine collection capability.
Building on the Strategic Services Unit (SSU), a War Department organization with former OSS personnel and facilities, DCI Vandenberg created the Office of Special Operations (OSO). By the end of 1946, CIG’s staff topped 1,800. At the highest levels of government, however, the CIG continued to lack influence.
National Security Act of 1947
The creation of a truly independent and permanent central intelligence organization focused on strategic issues required legislation. Specifically, the Administration made use of the big military “unification” bill by which Truman sought to modernize what he called America’s “antiquated defense setup.” This bill—the National Security Act of 1947—established a Secretary of Defense and an independent Air Force.
At Vandenberg’s urging, the White House also agreed to include language founding the Central Intelligence Agency. The authorization was brief and unspecific, but the CIA was born.