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Ask Molly: The National Security Act of 1947

July 25, 2022


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Dear Molly,

Who created the CIA? And why did they do that?  

~ Confounded

* * * * *

Dear Confounded,

This year is a big birthday for us! We turn 75 years young in September. It seems like only yesterday we were the new government agency on the block…

Where did we come from? The short answer is the National Security Act of 1947. But that’s not a very satisfying answer, if you ask me. So here’s the longer answer.

Most people who are interested in intelligence history think the CIA was formed from America’s World War II spy agency, the Office of Strategic Services, which is mostly correct but not the whole story.

The OSS is considered the precursor, or “father of,” both CIA and U.S. Special Forces. Much of the OSS’s legacy now belongs to CIA: heck, a third of CIA’s personnel were OSS veterans! We commonly refer to the OSS as “America’s first intelligence agency,” but as with most families, our history is a bit more complicated than that.

The CIA Family Tree
black and white graphic showing different branches of intelligence agencies before CIA, that look like a tree shape

As you can see from our family tree, there were several smaller organizations that held some function of intelligence gathering and analysis that would eventually become CIA. I won’t go into detail here, but if you want to learn more about what came before CIA, go to our website and you can read all about it: CIA’s Evolution.

Now that we set the stage, let’s dive into how CIA was actually created, and why…

The CIA was created under the National Security Act of 1947, which President Truman signed on July 26, 1947. The CIA officially came into existence on September 18th that same year, which is when we celebrate our birthday.

With the passage of the 1947 Act, Truman achieved his goals of modernizing and unifying America’s armed services, and, by creating a centralized intelligence agency, reformed our intelligence capabilities. To protect American’s civil liberties, he made sure to clearly divide intelligence roles between domestic and foreign: FBI would handle anything domestic, while CIA was limited to foreign intelligence only. Furthermore, the Act specified that CIA would have no police, subpoena, or law enforcement powers.

President Truman appointed Roscoe H. Hillenkoetter as the first CIA director, known as the Director of Central Intelligence. He had been the Director of one of our immediate “ancestors,” called the Central Intelligence Group. The CIG was a bureaucratic anomaly with no independent budget, no statutory mandate, and staffers assigned from other departments of the government. America needed a peacetime, centralized intelligence agency with its own budget and mandate. That’s why Truman replaced the CIG and created the CIA.

The 1947 Act loosely defined CIA’s mission into four broad tasks:

The 1947 Act was relatively unchanged until 2004. President Bush, after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, made major updates to the 1947 act, including the creation of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

If you’re interested, you can find out more about what is called “the National Security Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of December 2004” on the DNI’s website.

The importance of the 1947 National Security Act cannot be overstated. It created our Nation’s first peacetime intelligence agency, reflected America’s acceptance of its position as a world leader, and it remained a cornerstone of our national security policy for 75 years… and counting.

~ Molly

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