Was the formation of the CIA necessary? Controversies

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GESI Analysis, 36/2017

Abstract: In order to understand the concept given to the Central Intelligence Agency in its origin, the influences that led to its formation must be analyzed. The CIA is not a product of historical evidence. The need for it was previous, but it were the recent attitudes and events that shaped the agency and arranged its clauses and limits. The CIA became a branch and a model of security analysis, taking "Confidentiality, Integrity and Availability" as the main moral code to secure an object.



In spite of the growing hostility within the American domestic spectrum and worldwide, the real motives and initial objectives of this organization remain controversial. At the time it was explained as a measure taken due to the increasing menace of communism and the Soviet Union. However, certain factors disregard this first impression, such as the scarce mentions to the Soviet Union in several initial meetings which will be explored later on. Some experts in the field and members of the CIA have shown some skepticism stating other possible motives for the need of an organization like the Central Intelligence Agency.


Historical Background

Domestic and International spectrum

To introduce a historical context of the late 1940´s, the main events and waves that should be highlighted are the increasing US surrender of an isolationist attitude, as it was shown through the formation of the United Nations, the first meeting of the UN General Assembly  taking place in 1946. Similarly, the Iron Curtain took over Europe and after Stalin stated that communism and capitalism were incompatible, it led to a clear rivalry between East and West. The Prime Minister of the Uk at the time, Churchill, gave a speech in Truman's home state, Missouri, in 1946, enhancing the importance of the communist expansion and the Soviet threat, which at the same time led to a turning point in the long period of the Cold War.  "Admiral Souers on 29 April issued the CIG's first 'tasking' directive. This was exclusively concerned with the arrangements for gathering intelligence on the Soviet Union: 'There is an urgent need to develop the highest possible quality of intelligence on the USSR in the shortest possible time'." (Jeffreys‐Jones, Rhodri, 1997). These events provoked an imminent need for higher intelligence services. Furthermore, this context gives birth to two of the main motives for the formation of the CIA. On the one hand, the Soviet threat, with hostile attitudes between countries. On the other hand, this hostility led to the need of covert operations and espionage, which weren't possible without the formation of a totally new organisation. Nevertheless, it has also been argued and proved by congressional documents that the tragedy occurred in Pearl Harbor on the 7th December 1941 had a direct influence, as it stressed the need for intelligence services in order to be more efficient, and to prevent this event from ever taking place again. Therefore, the international spectrum affected its formation, although its creation was also influenced by domestic affairs, as mentioned above.

The Central Intelligence Agency was, to some Americans, the least worst option to take control of several issues. On the one hand, the Great Depression pushed President Roosevelt to implement the  "New Deal", a series of reforms to improve the situation of the people affected by the economic crisis. The conservative section of the population disagreed with this reforms, and in the meantime they were gaining power in the Congress. The lack of trust towards the government, and the believe of an efficient centralised organisation, opponents of the New Deal such as the Senator Tydings supported the formation of the CIA. However, this brought in the long term several critics to the agency. "To contemporary critics like Trohan and McCarthy, the CIA was an undemocratic, elitist conspiracy" (Jeffreys‐Jones, Rhodri, 1997). On the other hand, the need for intervention in other states increased throughout the years, but it was not possible due to the Montevideo Conference in 1933, where Roosevelt committed to non-military intervention. The CIA, in contrast, would allow covert operations, increasing the support for its formation. Finally, as I mentioned above the surrender of an isolationist attitude taken by the USA through Great Britain´s increasing power and the establishment of the United Nations, led to problems of sovereignty, which would be solved by having an organisation that secured the country and differed from Great Britain. Throughout the essay I will analyse the events and the factors mentioned above to evaluate the repercussion they had on the formation of the Central Intelligence Agency in 1947, which were not only short term circumstances.


The result of an imminent communist threat?

The formation of the CIA is located at the beginning of the Cold War and is therefore inevitably, the result of communist threats, which were taken as a direct offence to the USA.  "The need for an intelligence organisation with high standing stems largely from a modern circumstance: the emergence of the United States as a world power at a time when the Soviet Union , a clandestine society, stated to pose a potent threat to world security." (Jeffreys-Jones, Rhodri, 2014). There is a lot of controversy with this motive, because the realisation of Donovan´s statements, the precursor of the CIA, where he argued that intelligence should not merely consist on the military aspect, but also take advantage of political, social or topographical fields, alongside with the increasing threat of the USSR which involved secrecy and a new form of confrontation, led to a sentiment of fear and imminent need for intelligence services. However, events close to the date serving as catalysers for the formation of the CIA must not be confused with the internal deep influences that were previous and led to its formation. Donovan had been an influential figure due to all his merits who delved in the study and analysis of strategic intelligence, and therefore sought a new more developed form of it. "this last distinction required the establishment of an independent agency alongside of and yet central to the other intelligence services. Five, in Donovan's concept the new agency had a variety of tasks, including such diverse enterprises as espionage, research and analysis, subversive operations, and commando operations. Finally, the new agency encompassed both overt and covert activities. For intelligence, in sum, Donovan in 1941 sought high status, independence, centrality, and diversity of functions."(Central Intelligence Agency, 2007). This article seems to have validity as it is an internal document and does not seem to be bias. Donovan is seen as the precursor of the CIA because he proposed an organisation alike in 1941. Therefore, it shows that the Truman Administration did not decide this based just upon the recent increasing problems with the Soviet Union.

Similarly, the Central Intelligence Agency was not officially visible until the National Security Act took place on September 22 1947. Certain historians argue that along the Act the Soviet Union nor the communist threats were mentioned, which leads to a suspicion on whether anticommunist approaches were merely tactical. As Jeffreys portrays, the National Intelligence Authority justified the formation of a new organisation by stating: "The National Security Council, taking cognizance of the vicious psychological efforts of the USSR, its satellite countries and Communist groups to discredit and defeat the aims and activities of the United States and other Western powers, has determined that, […] activities of the US Government must be supplemented by covert psychological operations." (Jeffreys‐Jones, 1997). However, throughout his examination he asserts that not even the precursors of the CIA were known for having anti-soviet attitudes. Furthermore, it has been shown in latter reports that Truman did not look forward to taking extreme measures through the CIA to counter communism expansion. Therefore, these proofs bring the idea that in spite of the awareness of the importance of this threat, communism was not a direct influence of its formation.

In contrast, there are as well certain proofs that counter argue this first statement, although they don't offer a complete valid account in favour of the motives. In the first place, it should be argued that the context surrounding a decision or event is almost always an influential factor on the respective circumstance. However, in this case, there is even a higher probability of influence when taking into account that the iron curtain dividing East and West was a surprise in terms of strategy and ways of waging war. This leads to the thought of implementing a more developed intelligence force to be able to anticipate to the opponents plan. The proof that the Soviet programmes were a daily worry previous to the formation of the CIA is for instance the "Directive from Special counsel to the President to prepare estimates on USSR", a document of July 18, 1946, in which the special counsel to the president, Clark M. Clifford addresses Fleet Admiral Leahy in order to ask for information and news on the Soviet Union. What is specially important in this document, is the tone and mood of the counsel, which highlights the urgency of the letter. "Inasmuch as the President hopes that this information will being his hands before the convening of the Peace Conference in Parison 29 July 1946, it is desired that the reports I have requested be delivered to me prior to that date." (M. Clifford, 1946). Taking into account the date of the National Security Act, this urgent document was issued fourteen months before the formation of the CIA. It seems to be a completely valid evidence as it is primary literature released later on which has no risk of being bias as it was kept in secret and it shows the imminent threat the Soviet Union posed for the USA.  Furthermore, several letters on the same topic were sent close to the date, showing an increasing worry. For instance, there is evidence of a memorandum in August 23, 1946 on Soviet preparedness for war, with Molotov wanting to implement hostile measures precipitating a war. (Hoyt S. Vandenberg, 1946). The content of this latter evidence can be interpreted as an increasing danger and evolution towards what was becoming the Cold War, with measures required on both sides of the map.

Another possible evidence to show the direct influence of the Soviet threat to the formation of the Agency is a CIA historical document on the popularity of the organisation. Some sectors of the Congress were worried for the excessive authority and sovereignty of the agency, arguing that it involved the surrender of civil liberties of the American population in exchange of security. Nevertheless, "Administration witnesses alleviated this concern by reminding Congress that the Agency's authorized mission would be foreign intelligence." (Central Intelligence Agency, 2008). This statement implies that the creation of the CIA had as an intention foreign policy, which leads to the Soviet threat. However, the fact that it was used in order to spy and gain information of the URRS, it does not necessarily mean that the core reasons were connected. Furthermore, the validity of this source is controversial, given that it is a historical document that has been proved but at the same time, given that it was the Administration Office giving the justifications, they might have been bias and omit the truth in order to gain popularity in the Congress.

As an evaluation of the Soviet Union and its hostile attitude being an influence to the formation of the CIA, Jeffreys-Jones concluded that " the evidence as a whole points to only one sensible conclusion. The executive, defined as the President and his White House advisers together with CIG and CIA personnel, was in its setting up of the CIA motivated primarily and some of the time even solely by a determination to combat the Soviet Union." (1997). However, the lack of mention to these threats on the relevant meetings, Donovan's support and idea to form an agency like the CIA to develop intelligence services back in 1941 and other external circumstances put the Soviet Union more as a catalyser for the process, inevitably a motive as well, but not a "solely determination" to counter react to the USSR and the communist expansion measures.


Pearl Harbor: need for stronger intellgence?

The attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7 1941 was without doubt a turning point on the security of the United States, and hence influenced directly the formation of the CIA. The tragic Japanese attack caused 2008 casualties, and there was an uncertainty on what could have happened or what went wrong. "According to Vandenberg, Pearl Harbor had left two legacies: it had demonstrated the need for a central organization to coordinate the great mass of intelligence, and it had shocked the American people into an acceptance of the need for such an organization" (Jeffreys‐Jones, 1997). One of the main characteristics of the CIA was the centralisation character it had. In 1946, a document written as a memorandum was issued in order to show exactly what had gone wrong in terms of intelligence and what were the requirements for a more secure intelligence. Surprisingly, the CIA has not only the centralisation as an adaptation to previous security, but most of the other requirements are implied in the memorandum. "(a. Intelligence work requires centralization of authority and clear-cut allocation of responsibilities.b. The armed services should: (1) Select officers for intelligence work who possess the background and capacity for such work;(2) Retain these officers on intelligence duty for an extended period of time;" (Central Intelligence Group, 1946). This memorandum delves into the weaknesses of the American intelligence until the date, and the CIA  was formed thirteen months after this document was written, having centralisation, good preparation an disclosure norms as part of the clauses of the new agency, leading to a hypothesis where the CIA at least included all the clauses recommended in the Pearl Harbor analysis.

Similarly, the evidence collects the Japanese measures taken in order to attack Pearl Harbor, which were taken in the "post-VJ-Day reports of interrogations of knowledgeable Japanese….. (1) Espionage; (2) Consular staffs; (3), Naval attaches of the Japanese Embassy in Washington (10) Signal intelligence; (11) Submarine reconnaissance in Hawaiian waters." (Central Intelligence Group, 1946). This covert operations used by the Japanese could imply that the US researchers found vital the use of espionage and some forms of secret action and therefore supported the covert operations when the CIA was being raised. Another example is that in the document the use of cryptology is praised, another coincidence with the CIA´s virtues. However, in spite of the similarities and the hypothetical influence on the formation of the agency, the attack on Pearl Harbor was yet seen as an instrument to legitimise its creation and gain public popularity. "It suited Truman simply to let the Pearl Harbor rhetoric run, letting others do the talking and allowing the impression to develop that there had been an intelligence disaster in 1941 of an all-encompassing character." (Jeffreys‐Jones, 1997) As an evaluation, it could be argued that, in contrast to the Soviet threat, Pearl Harbor was mentioned in many documents, and the tone of urge differs from the uncertainty of the communist threat. Hence, the event of Pearl Harbor can be seen as an actual long term influence; the turning point that demonstrated the need of certain developments, best possible through the creation of the CIA. The deep foundation of the concept of the agency in itself is very closely related to the weaknesses and recommendations identified in Pearl Harbor. It must be argued though, that the formation did not arise from historical events or factors, given that Donovan´s advice and Pearl Harbor occurred quite before to 1947. " It is important to remember that neither the American intelligence organisations which had been created during World War II such as the OSS, nor the CIA and the National Security Agency (NSA) which followed the, arose from a historical vacuum"  (Andrew, Christopher, and Jeffreys-Jones, 2013). Therefore, it must be taken into account once again the important changes occurred throughout the decade, mainly focusing on the menace of the Soviet Union.

Once the requirement of development in intelligence services was known and accepted, the creation of a new organisation to deal with it became the least worst option, as Jeffreys-Jones argued in his book. When the CIA was thought to be dependent of other departments it received very little support. "Earlier rumours that intelligence would be run through the OSS or the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) had stimulated similar distrust and jealousies, while the idea of coordination from Foggy Bottom was unpopular both inside and outside the State Department." (Jeffreys‐Jones, 1997). Therefore, the CIA as an independent Agency was more welcomed as it was unknown to the date, and the first "peacetime intelligence agency". He stated several main circumstances that led to public support, legitimisation and need for the Central Intelligence Agency. The two that will be highlighted are the New Deal and its opposition, and the problem of sovereignty enhanced by the power of Great Britain and the creation of the UN.


Domestic spectrum: The New Deal and the surrender of isolationism

On the one hand, the New Deal consisted in a series of reforms implemented by Roosevelt as a response to the Great Depression in the 1930´s. "Over the next eight years, the government instituted a series of experimental projects and programs, known collectively as the New Deal, that aimed to restore some measure of dignity and prosperity to many Americans". (history.com, New Deal, 2009). In contrast, conservatism supporters opposed these reforms, stating the "unconstitutional extension of federal authority," (history.com, 2009) . Given the growing disagreement, the New Deal became a bigger problem in 1946 when the Republicans took control of the Congress, and therefore the problem became more serious. In relation to the formation of the CIA, the increasing opponents of these series of reforms showed their support to a new intelligence agency which would gain efficiency due to its centralised character, reducing unnecessary costs and finally putting end to Roosevelt´s legacy. However, this circumstance should not be seen as a direct influence to the formation of the CIA, because the objectives and function of the agency was completely different to the problems of this sector, having a different audience for its legitimisation. Furthermore, there is scarce and doubtful evidence for the connection of both subjects due to its remote relationship.  In contrast, this situation did influence indirectly, alongside with other parallel attitudes in the US.

The formation of the CIA was largely influenced by the fear of sovereignty and for the maintenance of power. The US had always been isolationist, but external circumstances led to the surrender of this attitude and the entrance to compete and maintain a powerful position within international affairs. This new adaptation alongside with two external new powers led to an increasing fear of sovereignty, which influenced directly on the formation of the CIA. Great Britain had an influential role in the US, as they had trained some intelligence agents (as in Camp X), and had an important role in world politics. However, it was thought that with the formation of the CIA America would recover its sovereignty, enhancing the independence and auto sufficiency of a growing powerful country. Moreover, in contrast to the circumstance of the New Deal, sovereignty problems imply identity, which means that the audience affected by this problem was much more expanded and therefore would influence more the legitimisation and the strengthening of the agency. Similarly, with the case of the UN, the popularity was controversial. On the one hand, the formation of the UN was a big step in the evolution of international relations and benefit everyone. Furthermore, the power of the US in 1947 within the UN was also inalienable.

 However, the commitment to an intergovernmental cooperation approach between countries and, specially at the time, with hostile relationships and in presence of the iron curtain, the surrender of sovereignty and certain authority within the country seemed frightening. Therefore, the formation of the CIA would symbolise a strong independent country which cooperated on an international level gaining political power, but auto sufficient and with vast resources to use in the intelligence field, which would become pioneers. Furthermore, after World War II there were very well trained individuals which would impulse the agency in terms of espionage and covert operations, which was vital throughout that ethos. "The formation of the CIA in 1947 was an assertion of national sovereignty at a time when it could be seen to be under challenge not just from the USSR and Britain, but from the United Nations as well" (Jeffreys‐Jones, 1997). The problem with national sovereignty could be said to have influenced at a very specific period the formation of the CIA. Similarly to the Soviet menace, but with fewer powerful role, this circumstance was a catalyser and an instrument for legitimisation of a new independent agency.



In conclusion, the influences to the formation of the Central Intelligence Agency could be divided into two different aspects. On the one hand, Pearl Harbor symbolised the need to evolve in intelligence services; a constant fear which led to the thought of an agency capable of centralising cooperation and offering a good training service to its members. Similarly, the need for secret operations and covert actions forced the formation of a new independent agency, publicly being the least worst option. On the other hand, the main influence that shaped the CIA was the soviet menace, the iron curtain and a divided world. By 1946, the awareness of the imminent threat posed by the communist expansion to the US was clear. This fear in the US enhanced the already existing problem of sovereignty due to Great Britain´s influential role within the US and the power of the United Nations, which posed in common a clear threat to national identity. As it was mentioned above, the CIA is not a product of historical evidence. The need for it was previous, but it were the recent attitudes and events that shaped the agency and arranged its clauses and limits.

The CIA became a branch and a model of security analysis, taking "Confidentiality, Integrity and Availability" as the main moral code to secure an object. In spite of the attempt to offer valid and varied proof, mixing primary with secondary literature and following Jeffreys model as a guide to the secret intentions behind the formation of the agency, the literature might be bias, either in that period when referring to public documents in order to gain popularity, or to nowadays lack of validity. The most valid evidence found are the primary documents which vary from memorandums to letters from officers within the administration, either the CIG or presidential counsellors, as they were released later on but were written while they were aware of the secrecy of the respective documents, enhancing the importance and the urge to solve the Pearl Harbor mysteries and to gain information on the Soviet plans.

Sara Cantalapiedra Martin Azaña is student at the University of Reading.



Andrew, Christopher, and Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones, eds. Eternal Vigilance?: 50 years of the CIA. Routledge, 2013. pg1

Central Intelligence Agency (US), About CIA: History of the CIA , April 10,2007 08:04 AM https://www.cia.gov/about-cia/history-of-the-cia

Central Intelligence Agency,Historical document,  A Look Back… The National Security Act of 1947, July 31,  2008

Central Intelligence Group, Memorandum for the director of central intelligence; Intelligence at Pearl Harbor; Collection., Washington D.C, August 22 1946. 

History.com, New Deal, A+E Networks, 2009 http://www.history.com/topics/new-deal

Hoyt S. Vandenberg, Lieutenant General, USA, Director of Central Intelligence, Memorandum on soviet preparedness for war  for fleet Admiral William D. Leahy, USM., August 27, 1946https://www.cia.gov/library/readingroom/docs/DCI_Memo_on_Soviet_Prepared...


Jeffreys‐Jones, Rhodri. "Why was the CIA established in 1947?." Intelligence and National Security 12.1 (1997): 21-40.

Jeffreys-Jones, Rhodri. The CIA and American democracy. Yale University Press, 2014. pg.11

Special counsel to the President, Clark M. Clifford sends "Directive from Special counsel to the President to prepare estimates on USSR", to Fleet Admiral William D. Leahy, USN, The White House, Washington. 18 July 1946https://www.cia.gov/library/readingroom/docs/Directive_from_Special_Coun...

Editado por: Grupo de Estudios en Seguridad Internacional (GESI). Lugar de edición: Granada (España). ISSN: 2340-8421.

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