The work of the CIA is fast and very strong in the popular imagination. It involves high-speed chases, jumping out of planes or off tops of buildings, firefights, and building explosions. In fact, says former CIA officer Alex Finley, “Generally the rule is, if the gun goes out or something goes boom, something has gone horribly wrong in your operation.”
For decades, the agency has played a vital role in US foreign policy decisions, various conflicts and crises abroad, from the blockade of Berlin in 1948 to Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine. But his entire history and work, especially his successes, are rarely fully seen or clearly understood by the public. Part of that is the agency’s fault and part is simply the nature of the business, former officials and scholars said.
On the agency’s 75th anniversary, retired CIA directors, station chiefs and officers, along with academics and national security journalists gathered for a series of panel discussions to discuss the complex, but vitally important, task of organizing intelligence at a one-day event Friday at the Charles Hotel in Cambridge.
“The mission of the Central Intelligence Agency is to know the truth, not the small truth, not someone’s truth, but the truth of what is, not what you prefer; see beyond the horizon…and empower leaders to act before events dictate,” said Sue Gordon, who spent 27 years at the CIA and served as Senior Deputy Director of National Intelligence at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) from 2017. to 2019.
The agency has “a killer mission” and a very strong institutional culture that resembles a men’s basketball game. “When you’re playing basketball, if you don’t do anything with that goddamn ball, you don’t get it anymore,” Gordon told Paul Kolbe, director of the Belfer Center’s Intelligence Project, which organized the event.
When it comes to today’s challenges, “I think information disorder is the biggest threat we face,” said Gordon, now the Intelligence Project’s principal investigator. At a time when information and disinformation are flowing faster than ever, the CIA must stay abreast of a rapidly changing technological landscape, especially at its higher echelons. “I think we have to improve.”
The CIA came into being after World War II when the United States undertook a major reorganization of the nation’s military and civilian intelligence apparatus. In 1947, President Harry S. Truman signed the National Security Act, which created the Central Intelligence Agency to handle national security matters affecting foreign policy.
Over the years, most public perceptions of the CIA have come from spy novels and Hollywood blockbusters, like the Jason Bourne movies and Tom Cruise’s “Mission: Impossible” vehicle.
“Too often Hollywood puts spy shows in the action genre, and the problem is we end up with movies that are about assassinations, car chases and rogue agents,” John said. Sipher, a retired career clandestine CIA officer who now co-owns a production company that vets and develops intelligence-related material for film and television. While entertaining and cinematic, that’s not how things are actually done. “Spy stories are about the human factor, about betrayal, about trust, about flawed individuals in pressure situations, things like that – character-based stories.”
In real life, “If an operator is doing their job right, you’ll never know,” said former CIA officer Finley, author of a series of satirical books about a counterterrorism officer named Victor Caro who works for the CYA.
In pop culture, “the CIA is seen as either total badass, or completely evil and rogue, or some combination, as if they’re totally rogue and badass but in a good way,” he said. she declared.
These fictional depictions, of course, are completely unrealistic, but lifting the curtain on operations and information gathering would require greater transparency than the agency has always been willing — or able — to provide, panelists said. .
Some do a better job than others of succeeding in certain aspects of CIA life, but none are entirely successful, Sipher said.
“Argo,” which won the 2012 Best Picture Oscar, and “Charlie Wilson’s War” more accurately capture aspects of agency life. Other films and shows earning accolades include “Three Days of the Condor,” “The Bureau,” a French series, and, to a lesser extent, “The Americans.”
With so little visibility on the CIA, David Sanger, 1982, National Security Correspondent for The New York Times, interviewed a panel of intelligence historians on some of the agency’s most notable successes and failures.
Due to the inherent sensitivity of CIA operations and the need to protect sources and methods of intelligence gathering, as well as meet classification requirements under the law, the public may never know about some of the accomplishments. most outstanding or heroic officers of the agency, they said.
Michael Morell served as Acting Director and Deputy Director of the CIA between 2011 and 2013 and President George W. Bush’s presidential daily informant on September 11, 2001. He asked historians what metrics they use to assess the CIA’s successes. Nicholas Dujmovic, a clinical professor of intelligence at the Catholic University of America and a former CIA historian, said questions to ask would include, “Were American interests served by this? Were the objectives of the operation achieved or were the decision-makers supported? And also, very important, ‘Are the target people in the country involved? Were they helped in the short or long term? It will change your perspective on whether interfering in the 1948 Italian elections was a good thing to do or not, or restoring the shah to the throne in Iran.