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The Birth Of The CIA
When and how it got the green light to conduct “subversive operations abroad”
February 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 2
To the Army’s intelligence branch, G-2, to the Office of Naval Intelligence, to J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, Donovan was anathema. The bureaucracies of these organizations could not abide the thought that this freewheeling, independent, little round man who had built the Office of Strategic Services, the enormous wartime spy agency, who reported directly to his friend Franklin D. Roosevelt, and whom, throughout the war, the bureaucrats had unsuccessfully endeavored to confine would survive to threaten their responsibilities and prerogatives now that peace had returned and things were going to get back to normal. “A mad man,” was the way Major General George V. Strong, chief of the Army’s G-2, referred to Donovan privately. Undersecretary of State Dean Acheson expressed the general view: “Donovan would have surprised no one if…he left one morning and returned the previous afternoon.”
The bureaucracy succeeded in stopping Donovan and in killing his beloved OSS. But history played Donovan’s enemies an enormous trick. The intelligence service they created to replace OSS eventually became the Central Intelligence Agency; CIA eventually became almost as powerful as Donovan had envisioned that his OSS in peacetime would be; finally, when Allen Dulles was named Director of CIA, American secret intelligence once again had at its helm a man who had learned his trade in the OSS and would not be long in reverting to the lessons he had learned.
Was it a good thing or a bad thing that Donovan’s enemies won their battle and lost their war? The question is still being argued. Is it a good thing or a bad thing that the United States owns a huge secret intelligence agency with a powerful subversive arm? It is not my intent to argue but only to set down what happened. The story begins with the defeat of Donovan.
At five o’clock on the morning of February 9, 1945, the Ga-year-old Donovan picked up a copy of the Washington Times-Herald on his Georgetown doorstep. There on the front page was his name in headlines and under that the by-line, Walter J. Trohan. The story must have burst upon Donovan like one of those artillery barrages Father Duffy had described after the second Battle of the Marne: “No crescendo about it; just a sudden crash, like an avalanche.”
“Creation of an all powerful intelligence service to spy on the postwar world and to pry into the lives of citizens at home is under consideration by the New Deal,” it began. “ The Washington Times-Herald and the Chicago Tribune yesterday secured exclusively a copy of a highly confidential and secret memorandum from General [William J.] Donovan to President Roosevelt…also obtained was a copy of an equally secret suggested draft of an order setting up the general intelligence service, which would supersede all existing Federal police and intelligence units, including Army G-2, Navy ONI, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Internal Revenue Agency.…”
Trohan went on to imply that the new unit would undermine J. Edgar Hoover. It would have secret funds for spy work “along the lines of bribery and luxury living described in the novels of E. Phillips Oppenheim.…”
The article, in short, was more than a leak. It was a hatchet job. Donovan finished reading it and called his executive officer, Colonel Ole Doering. Doering still remembers the soft voice on the telephone: “Ole, I want you to find out who did this and report to me at nine.”
Doering dressed hurriedly and set about tracing the distribution of the five typed copies of Donovan’s plan for peacetime intelligence. “At 9, I was ready,” he recalls. “I told the General that J. Edgar Hoover had personally handed the memorandum to Trohan. Donovan never said a word.”
Roosevelt did say a word. The President called that afternoon to say that he wanted the whole thing shoved under the rug for as long as the shock waves reverberated. Seven weeks later, Roosevelt judged that the heat was off and released a letter to Donovan giving the plan his general approval and asking Donovan to get comments from members of the Cabinet and other government officials. It was too late. A week later, Roosevelt was dead.
It is important to note the outlines of Donovan’s plan for a peacetime intelligence agency because it was the starting point from which the country departed and to which it eventually returned. The chief features were as follows:
First, the director of the new agency would report only to the President. Meaning: power.
Second, the new agency would “collect” intelligence. Meaning: it would have its own sources of information, including spies.
Third, the agency’s director would make “final evaluations of intelligence within the government,” final “synthesis,” and final “dissemination.” Meaning: Army and Navy Intelligence and the State Department could continue to perform the work “required by such agencies in the actual performance of their functions and duties,” but there would be no doubt as to who was to be boss.