History of the CIA, from its inception to September 11

History of the CIA, from its inception to September 11

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A formidable weapon during the Cold War, sometimes mythologized or decried, the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency), a famous American intelligence agency, is one of the best known in thehistory. Whether we fear it or admire it, its role is often amplified by an overly “conspiratorial” vision of history. We will try to move away from the part of myth and measure what is its role, its real weight in American politics?

The shock of Pearl Harbor or the need for an effective intelligence service

In order to fully understand the issues surrounding the creation of the CIA in 1947, it is first necessary to recall the intelligence situation in the United States. Curiously, before the Second World War, espionage did not have a good press across the Atlantic. If Roosevelt says he does not like espionage, he himself has his network of informants made up of relatives who provide him with most of his information. At the same time, the FBI has succeeded in weaving some networks in Latin America, to which must be added the networks of the intelligence services of the Navy and the Ministry of War. Yet this is insufficient: the English, much more advanced in terms of intelligence gathering, will then provide a lot of advice to their American counterparts and contribute to the founding, in 1942, of the ancestor of the CIA, the OSS.

The creation of this agency meets the need to centralize intelligence in order to increase its efficiency and make its operation simpler. And for good reason, a few months earlier, on December 7, 1941, the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor took place: the American services had then been unable to foresee and anticipate this tragic event. The management of the OSS was then entrusted to Donovan, perceived as the "father of American intelligence", despite the Army's reluctance. Thus was born the first civil service, which will not only carry out collection and analysis actions by securing the services of many academics and the best specialists, but also participate in sabotage actions behind enemy lines and make contact. with the different resistance networks. After the victory, in 1945, the OSS was finally dissolved.

Several steps will have to be taken before the CIA is born. With the onset of the Cold War and Truman's desire to implement his policy of containment, the American power must equip itself with an efficient intelligence service. But the debates are bitter in Congress, frightened by the prospect of seeing the birth of an overly powerful centralizing service. After the creation in 1946 of a first body responsible for planning and organizing intelligence in cooperation with other American intelligence services, the Central Intelligence Agency was created in 1947 through the National Security Act. Its symbols: the Shield, as America's first bulwark, the Eagle and the star.

The “Ministry of the Cold War” and the Secret Wars

The first mission of the CIA, initially entrusted to the charismatic Vandenberg and then to the former soldier Hillenkoetter, will therefore be to coordinate the work of the various intelligence services. Then, different functions will be added such as espionage and covert actions (clandestine actions), and the daily submission of reports directly submitted to the President, through a progressive increase in the agency's budget. The first major clandestine action was then to prevent at all costs an electoral victory for the Communist Party in Italy, a mission accomplished by the financial support given to the Party of Christian Democrats. The OPC - the section of the CIA in charge of clandestine operations - will carry out a series of actions in the Soviet sphere, financing various paramilitary groups in Ukraine, Poland and Albania. It is a failure, among others. One of which was moreover much more resounding: in 1949, the first Soviet nuclear bomb exploded while the CIA estimated that the USSR would not possess this weapon until 1953. The CIA failed again, not seeing it coming. the Korean War. This series of failures led Hillenkoetter to resign, giving way to Walter Badel Smith, again a soldier.

The CIA must be able to anticipate and foresee, so that the President can make the decisions. In order for the agency to carry out its mission, its budget is increased, and many scientists, academics and historians will put themselves at its service. An increasing place is therefore given to analysis. A scientific section is also set up, responsible for exploring the question of mind control through experiments carried out on prisoners or prostitutes. So Smith manages to establish a CIA monopoly on covert actions within the intelligence community. The agency therefore began to take hold in the 1950s, appearing to be a veritable “Ministry of the Cold War”. It sets up extensive collaboration with many foreign intelligence services: Israeli, German and British.

A new step is taken with the election of D. Eisenhower as President of the United States. The latter appoints Allen Dulles as head of the CIA, which will remain as one of the agency's most outstanding directors. He will act in the continuity of his predecessor, multiplying clandestine operations, the most striking of which is the coup d'état in Guatemala in 1954. These successes will enable the Agency to obtain the support of the White House and even of the Congress. At the same time, technical intelligence developed, with the commissioning of the U2 - a spy plane - which flew over the USSR several times between 1956 and 1960, until the U2 crashed in enemy territory, causing a crisis. diplomatic.

The tarnishing of the CIA's image

Covert operations can sometimes turn out to be a double-edged sword. So Allen Dulles will be sacrificed after the failure of the Bay of Pigs, an operation to overthrow Fidel Castro, certainly organized by the CIA, but with firm support from JFK. This is the ambivalent link between the White House and the director of the CIA: in the event of failure, the director of the agency is held responsible, completely exempting the President from the conduct and consequences of the operations. After the passage of Mc Cone condemned by his differences of point of view on the Vietnam war, the charge of director is entrusted to Helms, a discreet man. The press and various movements will be spied on and even manipulated on American territory, at a time when the pacifist movements are reaching a paroxysmal level of activity: the CIA is going beyond its legal framework of action. She will then be shaken on the one hand by the revelation of this affair in the press by the director of the CIA, William Colby and on the other hand by the Watergate affair.

So much so that in 1975, the Representatives aimed to set up a close monitoring of its activities: the CIA, criticized with virulence by many elected officials, saw its image deteriorate and its usefulness called into question.

The “Renaissance” of the CIA

The CIA is in crisis, morale is at its lowest in Langley, headquarters of the agency. To remedy this, George H. Bush is appointed Director: he is a politician and therefore seems able to withstand increasing pressure from the media and Congress. He is a valued man, who manages both to restore a climate of confidence within the CIA while combining with the new requirements of legality and parliamentary control. Despite everything, it is not kept by Jimmy Carter, new President in 1977 who attaches little importance to intelligence and seems to despise clandestine actions. He sets up Turner, quickly unpopular in the CIA, dealing more with the Intelligence Community than the agency. At the end of his mandate, Carter will still have to resolve to resort to intelligence: to bring Egypt and Israel closer, to organize clandestine actions in Afghanistan, or even in Iran in the face of the turmoil of the Islamic Revolution.

A new impetus is given with the election of Ronald Reagan, who wishes, to use Frank Daninos' expression, “to untie the chains of the CIA”, in order to give himself all the means to defeat the USSR. The new director, Casey, with a growing budget and staff, revives the underground actions. However, the agency's image is tarnished by the Iran-contra affair: in order to free the hostages from the American embassy, ​​Reagan allegedly allowed Iran to sell weapons through the CIA. in Liban.

Reagan is not splashed by this case, and as always, the responsibility lies with the Director of the CIA. But Casey dies suddenly, William Webster, a rigorous lawyer from the FBI, takes over. By placing its action within a legal framework, it strengthens cooperation between the CIA and the FBI. Then, in 1991, comes the fall of the USSR: it is a victory to which the CIA will certainly have contributed, but which also revives the debate on the usefulness of the agency, while the United States seems no longer have an enemy. Criticisms are resurfacing: the CIA was of little use during the First Gulf War and does not grasp new terrorist threats. Robert Gates, new director, will try to reform the CIA in order to adapt to the new configurations.

Difficult adaptation to new challenges

The 1990s were a decade of continuous crisis for the CIA. In 1994, a bomb exploded in the basements of the World Trade Center, in 1998 the first Indian nuclear bomb exploded: the eyes of the CIA no longer see clearly. And for good reason, its budget and its staff are decreasing. To top it off, the FBI penetrates the CIA to take control of anti-terrorism matters, until the staff push a director (Deutch) to resign. The Pentagon, which for nearly 50 years had accepted the preeminence of the CIA in matters of intelligence, is gradually trying to gain the upper hand over the Agency, taking advantage of this moment of weakness.

A new director is called, it is the 5th in 6 years: it is Tenet. This one has the favors of the personnel of the CIA, and intends to give again an important place to the Direction of the operations. Thus several plans are drawn up to assassinate Bin Laden, but are not implemented by the risks that would be incurred. Kept by Bush, in August 2001 he submitted a report to the President announcing the possibility of an attack on American territory. The sequel is known, resulting in the attacks of September 11, 2001. Conspiracy theories are born, despite the many declassifications that respond to a need for transparency, before the many dysfunctions and bad collaboration between the government come to light. FBI and the CIA. The bankruptcy is total for American intelligence, it will be necessary to transform the CIA.

George W. Bush goes to Langley, increases the budget by 50% and revives recruitment: the CIA must be the spearhead of the war against terrorism and the defense of the American empire. The Iraqi question will therefore mobilize CIA analysts, who must demonstrate that Hussein possesses weapons of mass destruction. An episode at the origin of a new disagreement between Langley and the White House, causing the resignation of the director, Tenet.

In December 2004, a law was adopted to reform American intelligence, of which the CIA was to be the big loser. The director of the CIA therefore loses his function of coordinator of American intelligence, in favor of a director of national intelligence (DNI) who oversees all the services. However, the CIA is reinforced in the field of clandestine actions, these being centralized from Langley. The CIA then entered a new era ...

Founded after the shock of a surprise attack, in an America emerging from isolationism, the CIA has an ambivalent character. It exists in fine several CIAs: that of myths, built from the coups d'état in which the CIA took part (Guatemala in 1954, Chile in 1973), making the CIA a superpowered agency with infinite tentacles; a CIA decried, by the scandalous experiments to which it was able to indulge and which sparked a number of debates, including among the American political class. The CIA has been a useful instrument of American foreign policy and the fight against communism, and, if the transition was difficult after the fall of the USSR, it still appears as a major institution of American intelligence, contributing to the protection the American people and the defense of their interests around the world.


- Frank DANINOS, CIA. A political history from 1947 to the present day, Paris, Tallendier, 2007

- Olivier FORCADE, The secret and the power. Special services in the 19th and 20th centuries, Amiens, Encrage, 2007

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