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Cloak and Dagger: The Unexpected Beginnings of CIA

December 29, 2015

Almost 70 years ago, in the blistering cold of a January winter, President Truman hosted a small, secret ceremony at the White House to establish the new Central Intelligence Group (CIG)—the CIA’s institutional predecessor—and to swear in Admiral Sidney Souers as the first Director of Central Intelligence (DCI). This ceremony, however, wasn’t like most official inaugurations: The CIG began its brief existence with a phony cape and a wooden dagger.

The office diary of the President’s chief military adviser, FIt. Admr. William D. Leahy, records the rather unexpected event that took place that day:

January 24, 1946: At lunch today in the White House, with only members of the Staff present, RAdm. Sidney Souers and I were presented [by President Truman] with black cloaks, black hats, and wooden daggers, and the President read an amusing directive to us outlining some of our duties in the Central Intelligence Agency [sic], Cloak and Dagger Group of Snoopers.

The humor and symbolism of this whimsical ceremony would have been lost on many veterans of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the big intelligence and covert action agency that Truman had suddenly dismantled at the end of World War II, only four months earlier. The CIG inevitably suffered (and still suffers) from comparisons with the OSS.

The CIG was a bureaucratic anomaly with no independent budget, no statutory mandate, and staffers assigned from other departments of the government. Nevertheless, within months of its creation, the CIG had become the nation’s primary agency for strategic warning and the management of clandestine activities abroad. Interdepartmental rivalries, however, prevented the Group from performing either mission to the fullest.

Within two years the Group handed over both missions to its successor, the CIA.

*Note, this article was adapted from a longer Studies in Intelligence (1995) article, “The Creation of the Central Intelligence Group,” by CIA Historian, Michael Warner (Vol 39, No5).

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