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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
On the other hand, the question of whether Congress authorized what Donovan had once called “subversive operations abroad” is less clear. The weight of evidence suggests that it did not. But the legislation did contain the following clause, also carried over from the Truman directive that had set up CIG: ”…perform such other functions and duties related to intelligence affecting the national security as the National Security Council may from time to time direct.”
This was Donovan language—straight out of his iQ45 memorandum to Roosevelt, though slightly amended by Clark Clifford, who had inserted after the word “Intelligence” the words “affecting the national security” and had thought of it at the time as “a restricting clause.” But Donovan had never intended “such other functions and duties” as any more than a catchall. It was later—about a year later—before it occurred to anyone that “such other functions and duties” might be construed to mean “subversive operations abroad.”
One day early in 1948, Admiral Hillenkoetter, who was still in charge, called CIA’s general counsel, Lawrence Houston, into his office and asked him a question. Could CIA spend money to help defeat the Communist Party in the upcoming Italian elections? Houston remembers that Hillenkoetter said he had been talking to James Forrestal, the new Secretary of Defense. “I’ve looked all over the government and I can’t find anybody who can do it,” Forrestal had said to him. “Can you fellows do it?”
Houston told Hillenkoetter he doubted the new agency had that authority. Then he went back to his office, got out the legislation, and reread it. There it was: “such other functions and duties.…” He thought about it, and decided that it did not constitute congressional authorization to spend money to influence an election in a foreign country. He informed Hillenkoetter that this was his opinion.
But the point had been raised, and now it became an arguable one. Forrestal and Hillenkoetter disagreed with Houston. So did Harry Truman. The CIA decided that it would conduct the Italian operation; and it was a turning point. Suddenly, down the road—with presidential approval—the lights turned green.
On a late winter’s day in 1954, United States Ambassador to Thailand William J. Donovan paid his last official visit to the CIA. By that time the agency was almost precisely what Donovan had envisaged that his peacetime OSS would become. If the relatively overt intelligence and analysis side of the house was not performing as Donovan had intended, if there was still duplication in reporting and overlapping with the armed services and State, the secret side of the house had more than compensated.
All over the world there were netw’orks and agents in place, and both at home and abroad “other functions and duties” were being carried out. Paratroopers were in training; newspapers, radio stations, magazines, airlines, ships, businesses, and voluntary organizations had been bought, subsidized, penetrated, or invented as assets for the cold war. In terms of manpower alone, the agency was already bigger than Donovan’s wartime OSS had been, and it was spending more money than General Donovan, an imaginative man, may have imagined.
“The sums made available to the Agency may be expended without regard to the provision of law,” said the CIA Act of 1949. ”…such expenditures to be accounted for solely on the certificate of the Director and every such certificate shall be deemed a sufficient voucher.…”
Admiral Hillenkoetter had presided over congressional approval of this language, and had then handed over his office to Lieutenant General Walter Bedell Smith, the irascible sergeant who had risen to become Eisenhower’s chief of staff during World War II . Then had come war in Korea and good reason to do what Smith wanted to do, which was to centralize, expand, and bring in the promised civilian head who would stay for ten years.
Smith had had half his stomach removed, and the operation had not improved his temper. “Dulles,” he would roar through the open door to his new deputy’s office, “Dulles, Goddamnit, get in here.” But there was never any doubt—except perhaps in the mind of Bill Donovan—that Smith respected Dulles and that Dulles would get his job.
It was an odd meeting that Donovan attended in 1954 on the occasion of his last call, partly ceremonial and partly business. Most of the deputies and division chiefs who had served under him were there, and the meeting was given additional emphasis by the presence of Frank Wisner, who supervised all covert operations from his office of Deputy Director of Plans, as well as of Dulles himself.
From a chair facing a semicircle of juniors, Donovan made his plea. He wanted money—quite a lot of money—in order to fight the Communist guerrillas in Thailand and he knew how the battle should be waged. “All I’m asking for is a bowl of rice in their bellies and a gun in their hands,” he said, referring to a hoped-for army of counterinsurgents.