At 75, the CIA is back where it started - countering the Kremlin
At its creation in July 1947, the CIA delivered briefings to President Harry Truman that would still sound current in today's news feeds.
The many examples include American citizens who couldn't get exit visas to leave the Soviet Union. Moscow's financial and trade disputes with Europe. And intrigue over Soviet dealings with Iran.
Here's CIA Director William Burns just last week at the Aspen Security Forum:
- "These are awful and shameful steps, (for Russia) to hold American citizens for political leverage."
- Russian leader Vladimir Putin's "bet is that winter's coming, so he can strangle the Ukrainian economy and wear down European publics and leaderships."
- "Russians and Iranians need each other right now. But if they need each other, they don't really trust each other."
So the storylines are familiar. But it's often been a turbulent journey since Truman signed the National Security Act that created the spy agency. Truman's explicit goal was to centralize the multiple and sometimes contradictory intelligence streams coming into the White House from separate U.S. military branches, law enforcement and the State Department.
Over the decades, CIA successes included keeping close watch on the Soviet Union with spy planes, satellites and human agents so Cold War tensions didn't spiral out of control.
Failures often involved military adventures gone awry, such as the disastrous Bay of Pigs operation in 1961, just one of many unsuccessful attempts to oust Cuban leader Fidel Castro.
"The great successes the CIA has had have been the way in which it reduced the possibility of confrontation in a nuclear age," said Tom Blanton, who heads the National Security Archive, a private research group in Washington that studies the U.S. intelligence community. "You really enhanced American national security over all those years by giving us much better information about the world."
But Blanton is quick to add, "the places where the CIA has gone wrong has been in its handling of agents, its covert operations, its paramilitary, which raised the possibilities of confrontation, raised the danger."
One of the agency's darkest periods was the early 2000s. First came the failure to foresee the al-Qaida attacks on 9/11. This was followed by the false assessment on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. Then came the CIA's torture program of terror suspects.
Stanford University's Amy Zegart said that program did lasting damage to the CIA's record.
"As Mike Hayden, former CIA director, has said very colorfully, any president that wants to approve waterboarding in the future should bring his own bucket," said Zegart, the author of Spies, Lies and Algorithms.
The 9/11 attacks put the CIA on a dramatically different course. The agency went from an emphasis on traditional spy work — collecting intelligence and recruiting foreign spies — to a focus on paramilitary operations.
The CIA was a central player in the fights that greatly weakened al-Qaida, the Islamic State and others.
But former CIA officer Doug London said the agency lost sight of its core mission.
"The focus on counterterrorism really put the United States and the CIA on a kinetic path, really moving it away from operating in the shadows and more as an extension of the military," said London.
London says his own 34-year career at the CIA mirrored this transformation.
"Where the first 17 years of my career was really focused on Russia and other principal rivals, that changed overnight, on 9/11, to terrorism," he said.
And so it went until he retired in 2018. His final job was overseeing the CIA's counterterrorism efforts in Afghanistan.
He says the urgency of the U.S. wars meant the CIA wasn't paying enough attention to evolving threats elsewhere.
"Russia and China were becoming much more aggressive in applying the rules of this hybrid warfare of disinformation that the United States was very slow to adapt to," said London, emphasizing a theme he writes about in his book, The Recruiter: Spying and the Lost Art of Intelligence.
Amy Zegart puts it this way: "Intelligence officers should be gatherers. Military officers are hunters. And the more the CIA is hunting, the less the CIA is gathering. There's a real need for the agency to move away from its counterterrorism, battlefield-focused operations to put more time and more attention on these strategic questions."
CIA Director Burns is moving in that direction.
He's created a China Mission Center dedicated to the country seen as the most serious long-term U.S. adversary. However, this project is seen as a major challenge given China's vast, cutting-edge surveillance systems that make the country so difficult for foreign intelligence agencies to penetrate.
More immediately, Russia's invasion of Ukraine has also ushered in a new chapter for the CIA.
As the agency came to believe Russia was planning an attack, Burns flew to Moscow late last year and spoke with Putin.
"Burns could say, 'Look, we're listening to you guys. We know you're going to go in. I just want to tell you: bad idea. It's not going to work out for you,' " Tom Blanton said. "Putin wouldn't hear him, but it was great intelligence. The CIA knew something that the individual Russian soldier on the front line did not know."
In addition, the Biden administration went public with some of the U.S. intelligence on Russia's plans — a move met by skepticism — until it proved accurate.
"I think this was a signature moment for the agency," said Zegart. The CIA "put the truth out before the lie, saying, 'Don't believe a word Vladimir Putin's going to tell you. He's lying.' "
This approach, she said, is likely a blueprint for the future.
Greg Myre is an NPR national security correspondent. Follow him @gregmyre1.
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