When you think of the Central Intelligence Agency or CIA, you probably think of elite special agents like James Bond. While the CIA does make an appearance in many spy thrillers, the real history of this mysterious agency is much more complex and interesting than fiction would lead you to believe. If you've ever tried to read up on the history of the CIA, you've probably found some contradicting information, since much of its work remains secret to this day.
World War II was a conflict like no other the world had ever seen. In addition to its unprecedented scale, rapid technological advances were entirely changing the way wars were fought. To keep up, the United States created the Office of the Coordinator of Information (COI) in 1941. This agency collected and coordinated all intelligence collected by the military, FBI and State Department, which previously had all been working somewhat independently and sometimes missing important details as a result. The COI largely worked within the U.S. by gathering information and debriefing refugees and defectors who arrived in the country.
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The COI's first director, General William Donovan, was nicknamed Wild Bill for his courage and independence. He used those traits to create a unique institution. He was responsible for moving the COI to the oversight of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as he thought it was critical to work closely with the Army and Navy so that they could quickly respond to new intelligence. However, he also fought to keep the COI from being controlled by any particular branch, as he believed independence was key for effective intelligence work.
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In 1942, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) was founded and was also overseen by Wild Bill Donovan. The OSS took a more active role in military efforts than the COI did by sending agents to places like North Africa, China, and Europe in order to fight the Axis. These agents used espionage techniques to covertly gather information. Some also engaged in unconventional warfare, such as sabotage and training or equipping local resistance movements. The OSS was unique for the time in that it hired many female operatives. Around 35 percent of OSS agents were women.
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Although Donovan strenuously insisted on the importance of an intelligence agency even during times of peace, the OSS was created purely to gather intelligence during the war. As World War II drew to a close, it began to disband. However, some people took Donovan's warnings seriously, and the Strategic Services Unit was created in 1945. This agency was intended as a short-term stopgap and only operated for a little over a year, although it played an important role in resolving lingering conflicts from World War II.
After the Strategic Services Unit was closed, the Central Intelligence Group was created to take its place in 1946. This agency focused on spying in Europe, where there was still a large amount of conflict due to the unrest caused by World War II. It also began to develop modern intelligence analysis techniques to more efficiently assess the information that operatives were gathering. However, it also only operated for about a year and a half.
In 1947, President Truman signed the National Security Act, which formally created an intelligence agency to operate at all times. This law defined the CIA's role in the American government. It primarily continued performing the same intelligence gathering and analysis role as the CIG, but the National Security Act also expanded its duties to include advising the government about intelligence concerns and performing other duties as recommended by the National Security Council.
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About a third of the early CIA agents had previously worked for the OSS and other wartime intelligence agencies, so it was an easy transition. By the 1950s it was running strong and playing a major role in government and military affairs. It had already become a prestigious place to work and often hired new recruits from some of the best universities in the United States.
Although the USSR and the U.S. had worked together to defeat the Axis powers during World War II, the relationship between the two countries quickly soured in the aftermath. This led to the Cold War, a decades-long conflict in which the former allies vied for supremacy but never quite engaged in open warfare. The CIA played a major role in this conflict by engaging in extensive espionage activities against the USSR and supporting local insurgents in Soviet countries.
The CIA became a target of controversy during the 1960s and 1970s due to its covert operations against U.S. citizens. CIA agents infiltrated many counterculture and political groups, particularly Civil Rights Movement organizations and antiwar groups opposed to the war in Vietnam. While the CIA maintains that it was working to prevent domestic terrorism, many activists and civil rights experts disagree.
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After the September 11, 2001, attacks, the CIA again found itself under criticism for failing to prevent violence. As a result, the agency engaged in a major overhaul of its policies and activities. While it still performs many diverse intelligence gathering activities, it is largely focused on identifying potential terrorists and preventing future attacks.
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