- Historic Sites
The Birth Of The CIA
When and how it got the green light to conduct “subversive operations abroad”
February 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 2
Hillenkoetter never seemed to be quite sure whether he was more interested in foreign intelligence or domestic communism. He liked to pore over long lists of people in and out of government whom he suspected of being leftwing, and then issue memoranda forbidding CIG employees to “have any communication with the Following.” Nevertheless, he holds the honor of being the only American ever to head both the Central Intelligence Group and the Central Intelligence Agency, and when he left in 1950 to assume a sea command, the groundwork for what was to become an enormous intelligence and covert-action bureaucracy had been laid.
Still, Harry Truman could not have been pleased by the change he had set in motion. Separate intelligence reports from G-2, ONI, and the State Department continued to flow across his desk. The new CIG merely added one more. But the military intelligence services had not wanted the CIG and had indeed fought hard against it. Only the agreement between Patterson and Forrestal had carried the day. Perhaps Truman thought that real change would come when the armed services unification bill was finally passed, and a more powerful intelligence agency could take its place in the new organization that would emerge.
“An intelligence agency was the tail,” Clark Clifford says of the establishment of CIA. “The entire defense establishment spent 1946 and part of 1947 arguing about the National Security Act. How should we merge the Army and the Navy and establish the Air Force and what should be the powers of the Secretary of Defense, and what should be the mission and the authority of each service? That was the dog. Nobody paid much attention to the intelligence part of the bill.”
Indeed, the drafters of the unification act planned it that way. The CIG legislative counsel, Walter Pforzheimer, went to the White House one day with two copies of draft legislation. The first authorized a CIA. The second authorized covert and unvouchered funds for the CIA. In a meeting with Admiral Forrest Sherman, who was handling unification legislation for the Navy, General Lorris Norstadt, who was doing the same for the Army, and White House counsel Charles Murphy, Pforzheimer was told to forget about the second draft. “They thought,” he recalls, “that the secret funding would open up a can of worms, and delay unification. We could come up with the housekeeping provisions later on.”
And so the CIA was born. “A small but elite corps of men with a passion for anonymity and a willingness to stick to the job.” That was Allen Dulles’ description to Congress of what he thought the agency should be. General of the Army Dwight D. Eisenhower also testified, and some thought that his remarks pointed to Dulles.
“One of the difficulties,” said Eisenhower, doubtless thinking of the military attachés of G-2 for whom he had more than once expressed contempt, “is getting a man who will understand intelligence. He must show a bent for it and be trained all the way up. If I could get the civilian I wanted, and knew he would stay for ten years, I would be content, myself.”
There was almost no opposition to the intelligence portion of the act. Congressman Clare Hoffman of Michigan wanted an amendment to bar the new agency from “the collection of intelligence.” Hoffman represented G-2’s last stand. Congressman Walter H. Judd of Minnesota introduced an amendment that would “prevent this agency from being allowed to go in and inspect J. Edgar Hoover’s activities and work.” Judd represented the FBI’s last stand. Neither of the amendments was adopted.
When it was all over—the date was July 26, 194?—the nation’s newspapers headlined the fact that Congress had passed the National Security Act. The armed services were to be “unified” under a new Department of Defense. Far down in its account of the historic event, the New York Times reported that “there will also be a Central Intelligence Agency.” Donovan read the account and remarked to a friend, “I see they finally made intelligence respectable.”
The National Security Act of 1947 gave the Central Intelligence Agency power to hire its own people and to have its own budget, though it was not yet to be a secret, unvouchered budget. The legislation made the new agency responsible to a new National Security Council (Forrestal’s vehicle for handling problems of “common concern”). Apart from this change, CIA was a continuation of CIG, its powers and functions recited in almost the same language in which President Truman had enumerated the powers and functions of CIG in the letter he had written to Byrnes back in 1946.
Donovan, who had not been called to testify on the act, noted this fact. “Those fellows don’t know what they’re doing,” he remarked, “because they’re not sure what they can do.” It was not quite an accurate statement. “Those fellows” knew they could spy. They had been spying for CIG under the authority “to perform for the benefit of existing agencies…services of common concern.” This language from Truman’s 1946 directive was now incorporated into law, and the legislative history makes it clear that Congress knew what the language meant.