A Brief History of the CIA

In light of the prolonged controversy bedeviling America's alphabet-soup intelligence community, and following Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's dubious (and quite hilarious) presentation purportedly implicating Iran in a web of nuclear lies, we found it prudent to remind ourselves of the CIA's spotted history and discover for ourselves the true nature of an agency routinely besmirched by Republicans and Democrats alike. What follows is a brief backstory of the Central Intelligence Agency as well as a few concise synopses of its most infamous and deplored private programs. Of course, it's too easy to forget the list of positive outcomes attributed to the clandestine bureau, especially in this era of unabashedly unsourced criticism, and we do strive for patriotic pride in deference to fair consideration; however, to be patriotic is not to celebrate blindly, nor is it to criticize ad infinitum. To be patriotic is to study without bias, think without motive, applaud what is right and criticize what is wrong. For the sake of brevity, in this article, we shall forgo the applause. 

The Central Intelligence Agency was created on July 26, 1947 by President Harry Truman following his enactment of the National Security Act, which had been drafted partially in response to the suprise-attack on Pearl Harbor six years before its signing. It is a civilian agency within the executive branch purposed for the collection and analysis of human intelligence, specifically in countries and territories inimical to the U.S. or significant to her foreign policy. While the FBI conducts investigations domestically pursuant to federal law, the CIA’s purview is, by the same classification, restricted to overseas operations.  

Throughout the 70 years of its publicly funded existence, the agency and its programs have enjoyed extensive criticism from both watchdogs at home and those denizens abroad caught in the eagle-eyed scope of international relations. Those who in the past have alleged warmongering, deceit, treason and treachery (among countless other convention-breaking crimes) are in the present repeatedly vindicated by scheduled dumps of declassified documents; unfortunately, such revelations typically don't occur until decades after the deaths of the programs they reveal—and, lamentably, long after the expiry of critical public interest.

Perhaps the most consequential falsehood purveyed by the CIA was the Gulf of Tonkin incident, which facilitated and excused the United States’ participation in the Vietnam War, a conflict ultimately responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths. The Gulf of Tonkin incident involved two supposed confrontations between the United States and North Vietnam, with the former occurring on August 2nd, 1964, and the latter, two days later. The official American report on the matter claimed three North Vietnamese torpedo boats aggressed and pursued the U.S.S. Maddox while it was passively gathering signals intelligence. One U.S. aircraft was allegedly damaged in the event, while all three Vietnamese vessels were purportedly targeted and nearly destroyed. Six days after the incident was reported, the 88th Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which cautiously authorized then-President Lyndon Baines Johnson to participate in the Vietnamese conflict. President LBJ saw this as a de facto grant of war powers, in turn establishing a presidential precedent that to this day interprets Commander-in-Chief as Authorizer of Force. Nearly 40 years after the incident was hyped unto hyperbole, former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara publicly admitted that the two events never occurred (in the language of us common folk, that means the government lied). The North Vietnamese were indeed hostile to the United States, and their pathological ideology was incontrovertibly antithetical to the liberal ideal; however, in retrospective legal context, it is quite clear that our primary excuse for heightening our role in the dreadful conflict was nothing but a farce. Evil in the pursuit of good is still evil, no matter how good the good.

Another infamous operation was Project MKUltra, today known colloquially as the CIA Mind-Control Program. The project entailed a mostly illegal chronology of human experimentation and was designed to develop an understanding of the effects of drugs and torture on subjects within and without the conventional boundaries of interrogation. The operation began in the early 1950s and was officially sanctioned in 1953. The program engaged in a plethora of illegal activities, including the use of unwitting U.S. and Canadian citizens as test subjects. MKUltra employed harrowing methodologies to influence the mentalities of its victims, including the surreptitious administration of drugs, chemicals, hypnosis, sensory deprivation, isolation, abuse and psychological torture. The Supreme Court summarized the program as “the research and development of chemical, biological and radiological materials capable of employment in clandestine operations to control human behavior.” As previously stated, the CIA’s purview is limited to international operation by federal law; therefore, its hostile actions against citizens of the United States were, in every interpretation, blatantly illegal and profoundly wrong. One particularly disturbing operation under MKUltra was called Operation Midnight Climax, whereby American agents repeatedly dosed unsuspecting prostitutes with LSD and watched them perform sexual acts with the anonymizing amenity of one-way glass. The program was officially terminated in 1973, and comprehensive information about it and its horrors did not enter the public domain until 1977. As of the date of this article, not one official has been held responsible for the heinous operations that irremediably shattered a bevy of innocent passersby.

Finally, we bring our attention to the intelligence operations surrounding the controversial and posthumously denounced War in Iraq, a congressionally sanctioned conflict begun in 2003 and led by the United States that intended to topple Saddam Hussein's tyrannical Bath government and liberate the people it dehumanized. An estimated half-million Iraqis were killed in the first three years of the war. The Bush administration predicated the campaign on intelligence reports claiming that Saddam Hussein had, during the inter-Bush administrative era, stockpiled numerous weapons of mass destruction—specifically, weaponized poisonous gas that the 20th-century Geneva conventions uncontroversially forbad—and positing that his unstable Iraqi government posed an imminent threat to both the United States and her coalition allies. After the invasion, no substantial evidence was found to buttress claims put forth by the CIA, which had originally identified WMD research facilities that, upon closer inspection, turned out to be decommissioned hydrogen laboratories. A memo released after the war's commencement stated that “[President] Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.” This pseudo intelligence was thoroughly debunked even before the mission had been accomplished. Critics on both sides of the aisle continue to implicate President Bush and his administration in the witting commission of war crime. Whether the ex-President is personally liable is not an issue worthy of pursuit, but the facts still stand with perfect posture: the intelligence was wrong, Americans died, and Iraq lies in ruin.

There have been scores more illicit programs festering under the wide-reaching arc of the CIA and its sisters, including but not limited to Project Resistance, which surveilled domestic anti-war organizations; Project Merrimac, which infiltrated those aforesaid groups; Project Artichoke, which aimed to produce artificial amnesia in citizens; and Project MKOften, which sought to categorize the effects of toxic cocktails on humans and animals.

To reiterate, we do not wish to imply that every action committed by the CIA is anti-American, ill motivated, inhumane or illegal. It is plausible that the majority of their operations has benefitted the public greatly and will never be known due to the nature of classified ops. That being said, all it takes is a quick google search to discover the CIA’s laundry list of controversies and coups d’état. The takeaway: patriotism does not excuse criminal activity, and you shouldn't believe everything Uncle Sam whispers in your ear. Be wise, be objective, and—most importantly—trust, but verify.