The National Security Act of 1947, written by a young high-flier named Clark Clifford, gave the world the U.S. Air Force and the National Security Council, changed the Department of War to the Department of Defense and, almost as an afterthought, created the Central Intelligence Agency 50 years ago today.
"Nobody paid much attention to the intelligence part of this bill," Clark said later. Lies were the new outfit's swaddling clothes from the start. Secretary of Defense James Forrestal had testified before Congress that the CIA's intelligence function would be entirely analytic. The act passed in July. By September, Forrestal was ordering the agency's first director, Rear Adm. Roscoe Hillenkoeter, to commence covert operations in Europe. At first Hillenkoeter declined, after the CIA's legal counsel advised that this would overstep the agency's mandate. Forrestal forced the counsel to revise his opinion.
The rituals of deniability in 1947 were the same as they were 40 years later with Ronald Reagan and the Contra war. Harry Truman wanted covert intervention in Italy to sabotage the possibility of the Communists winning through the ballot box in 1948. But he was loath to put his name to any document explicitly requiring such action. The enabling mechanism was that other infant in the Cold War cradle, the National Security Council.
Funding for the CIA's activities in Italy came from private sources inside the United States, through a network of proprietary front organizations, millionaires and criminal enterprises. The agency back then was certainly no rogue outfit. When Sicilian Mafiosi, armed and urged forward by U.S. intelligence officers, attacked a May Day parade in Palermo in 1947, killing 11 and wounding 57, it was a consequence of policies approved in the White House.
Whether the target was Chou En-lai, Fidel Castro, Patrice Lumumba or Moammar Kadafi, the CIA was tasked to kill leaders the U.S. government wanted out of the way. Liberals are fond of denouncing "secret government," or even "the Secret Government," an entity that does all the bad things, overruling the intentions of good presidents and good government.
But to write about 50 years of the CIA is to write about 50 years of foul deeds that elected U.S. governments deemed appropriate at the time. Take the CIA's Phoenix program in Vietnam, aimed at "neutralizing" Viet Cong political leaders and organizers. The program was run by William Colby, later director of the agency. Colby testified before Congress in 1972 that 20,587 Vietnamese had been killed (the Vietnamese said the true figure was nearer 41,000). A U.S. intelligence officer in the Phoenix program, Barton Osborne, stated later, "Quite often it was a matter of expediency just to eliminate a person in the field rather than deal with the paperwork."
In 1972, a parade of witnesses told Congress stories of the Phoenix interrogators' techniques, how they interviewed suspects and then pushed them out of planes, how they cut off fingers, ears and testicles, how they used electroshock, shoved wooden dowels into the brains of some prisoners.
After the My Lai massacre, there was a move to reduce the funding for these killing programs. Richard Nixon, according to an account by Seymour Hersh, strongly demurred: "No, we've got to have more of this. Assassinations. Killings."
Despite his bloodthirsty exuberance, Nixon was no worse than Dwight Eisenhower, who wanted similar results in Guatemala and Iran; than John Kennedy, sponsor of CIA-supervised torture and carnage in Southeast Asia and Latin America; than Lyndon Johnson, happy that Indonesia had been secured for the Free World at a cost of a million Communists dead, than Jimmy Carter, who had the CIA whistle up Argentine torturers to train the first Contras; than Reagan, whose executive agent, CIA Chief William Casey, sponsored assassination manuals in Central America and bombs that killed schoolgirls in Beirut; than George Bush, who continued the policies of Reagan and Carter in actively supporting the Khmer Rouge; than Bill Clinton, whose OK has sent CIA agents to plant bombs in cinemas in Baghdad and CIA support to the Taliban in Kabul.
So maybe the simple function of this 50th anniversary should be to lay forever to rest the notion of a rogue CIA. A "secret" government, like a "secret" war is almost always something easily discovered by people, unless they are eager to shirk the task of looking their history and their government squarely in the face.