On one side of the ledger are assassination plots, LSD experiments, botched invasions, overlooked moles. On the other are America’s victory in the Cold War, the world’s first spy satellites, the detection of Soviet missiles in Cuba.
As the Central Intelligence Agency approaches its 50th birthday Thursday, former CIA and KGB chiefs, undercover spies and some of the CIA’s many critics portray the spy agency as both a credit and an embarrassment to the nation.
These observers regard the CIA as the main pillar of the U.S. effort to contain the Soviet Union. Albeit with some high-profile failures, they say, the agency combined human sources and high technology to inform a succession of presidents about a dangerous enemy.
“The CIA during the Cold War was considered the blue chip in a deadly poker game,” said William Bader, who served on the staff of the Church Committee, headed by the late Sen. Frank Church, which issued a highly critical report on the CIA in 1976.
Perhaps the most flattering testimony comes from the CIA’s former archenemy, the Soviet KGB.
“The CIA stopped communism in Western Europe in the early 1940s and ‘50s,” said Maj. Gen. Oleg Kalugin, former head of KGB counterintelligence. “It was fairly weak in the beginning, and I know for sure. They had no assets (agents) inside the USSR.” But that began to change. By the end of the Cold War, despite such high-profile CIA disasters as the Aldrich Ames spy case, “the score, if you compare, is heavily in favor of the United States.”
On the less glamorous technical side of intelligence, the CIA developed the U-2 spy plane and later led the nation in space technology, successfully recovering the first object sent into space - a film canister - and ushering in the era of spy satellites. CIA cameras enabled weapons analysts to count rivets on the wings of Soviet warplanes. And eavesdropping technology developed by the CIA gave the government a secret seat at the table in many foreign governments.
“They found ways to get access to information out of this most secret country in the world that boggled the mind,” said former CIA Director Robert Gates. “They’ve never gotten any credit for that.”
Much of the CIA’s dark public image must be ascribed to the all-too-public exposure cast on many of the agency’s clandestine operations.
The failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961 heads the roster of CIA debacles. In Vietnam, the CIA’s Operation Phoenix claimed tens of thousands of lives in an effort to root out Communist leaders in South Vietnam. The Senate’s Church Committee investigation of 1975 and ‘76 exposed CIA assassination plots, including the hiring of Mafia hit men in a failed bid to kill Fidel Castro, as well as CIA surveillance aimed at American citizens.
“There are those who believe that this is just a dirty business and that the country shouldn’t be doing it,” said Adm. William Studeman, who served two stints as acting CIA director in the 1990s.
Former CIA Director Richard Helms and CIA critic Steve Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists agree on one thing: The blame for many of the CIA’s excesses may lie with the presidents who ordered them.
“It is clear that the option of projecting power secretly has repeatedly proven to be an irresistible temptation and it has implicated the United States in a series of atrocious human rights violations,” Aftergood said.
Helms said presidents have the option of doing away with covert action by a simple executive order. They have not done so.
“Most presidents like to feel that that weapon is there if they need it,” Helms said.
This reputation for dirty business has been hard to shake. Thus, with little if any supporting evidence, many found it easy to believe that the CIA was involved in the assassination of President Kennedy or responsible for the spread of crack cocaine through the inner cities.
The reforms of the mid-1970s gave Congress the power to oversee covert operations, including a number going on today.
Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., was, for a time, calling for the abolition of the agency, citing its failure to predict the collapse of the Soviet Union.
But such suggestions have faded, and the agency, 25 percent smaller since the end of the Cold War, survives with its new mission, as defined by Director George Tenet, of pursuing “hard targets” such as terrorist groups, drug cartels and weapons proliferators.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: CIA MILESTONES June 13, 1942. President Roosevelt establishes the Office of Strategic Services, predecessor of the CIA. May 1, 1960. U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers is shot down over the Soviet Union. Aug. 11, 1960. CIA-led Corona program leads to first recovery of a man-made object from space, a film capsule, marking the start of spy satellite program. April 17, 1961. CIA-organized Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba ends in disaster. Oct. 14, 1962. U-2 mission detects Soviet medium-range ballistic missiles in Cuba, touching off the Cuban missile crisis. Dec. 22, 1974. The New York Times reveals “Operation Chaos,” a CIA activity directed against anti-Vietnam War protesters. Jan. 27, 1975. The Senate establishes the Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations With Respect to Intelligence Activities, under the chairmanship of Sen. Frank Church. The committee issues a report in 1976 on CIA assassination plots and other abuses. June 13, 1985. Aldrich Ames meets Soviet agent at Washington restaurant and hands over names of some 20 Soviets working for the CIA, several of whom are later executed.