A factor in American history since the revolutionary war, the intelligence community that uses the methods here discussed and produces the kinds of data enumerated is necessarily the product of a long evolution. At the time of the Revolution, there was no such thing as the "community" of today; there was not even an organization in the conventional sense. Spying was largely a freelance business. Paul Revere's ride in April 1775 alerting colonists to a British foray from Boston—a classic example of warning intelligence—was a personal initiative. For the most part, generals ran spies directly as part of their scout services. This was the relationship between British General Henry Clinton and his agent Major John André, as well as that of George Washington with spies John Honeyman and Joshua Merserau, and scouts like Knowlton's Rangers (Nathan Hale, possibly the best known revolutionary war spy, was a volunteer from that unit.) This approach continued through the Civil War, which saw the beginnings of a distinct intelligence mission. In 1861–1862 General George S. McClellan relied upon Allan Pinkerton's organization, the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, for both intelligence and counterespionage work. Many of the Pinkerton reports exaggerated Confederate strength, and McClellan's successors terminated the Pinkerton connection, but spying nevertheless became much more systematic. No formal arrangements for spying existed on the Confederate side, but there, too, agents were often used. Scholars of the period have identified more than 4,200 persons who functioned as spies, informants, guides, scouts, and so on. President Abraham Lincoln's assassin, John Wilkes Booth, certainly a Confederate sympathizer, may have been a southern agent as well.
After the Civil War the U.S. military began to collect information on foreign militaries more systematically. In 1866 the Assistant Secretary of the Navy Gustavus Fox went to Russia on an official information-gathering mission. In 1882 the Office of Naval Intelligence became the first official U.S. intelligence agency. The army created an information office in 1885 that became the Military Intelligence Division in 1918. World War I stimulated growth of both units, as well as the Cipher Bureau within the State Department on 17 June 1917. The latter contained a code-breaking unit that achieved notoriety (revealed in the 1930s) for unraveling Japanese instructions to their diplomats at the Washington Naval Conference of 1921–1922, an early illustration of the utility of intelligence. The code-breaking unit was abolished in 1929, but State continued to play a coordinating role among U.S. agencies in the field right through World War II.
The need for coordination grew when President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered the Federal Bureau of Investigation, previously entirely involved in crime solving, to carry out counterespionage activities in Latin America. Roosevelt also created a propaganda organization with quasi-intelligence functions, the Office of Coordination of Information, in 1941. This soon evolved into a true intelligence organization, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), with propaganda left to the Office of War Information. The OSS developed both analytical and operational sides, greatly benefiting from the pillars of intelligence developed during the war. When the OSS was abolished in 1945, its espionage (and counterespionage) elements went to the War Department, while its analytical unit was absorbed by the State Department, eventually becoming the Bureau of Intelligence and Research that exists today. The other former OSS elements, meanwhile, had a difficult time within the War Department, where OSS counterespionage was seen to be in competition with the army's Counterintelligence Corps, and its espionage nets as having little to contribute.
A far cry from the dreams of former OSS chief General William J. Donovan for a peacetime permanent intelligence service, the postwar situation resulted from decisions by President Harry S. Truman, who was concerned primarily with ending the ravages of war, and not especially fond of Donovan or his ideas. With a growing Cold War in 1946 and later, Truman worried more about intelligence. He approved formation of the National Intelligence Authority in January 1946, under which the former clandestine units from OSS were gathered with the Central Intelligence Group. This order also created the post of director of central intelligence. But the National Intelligence Authority proved to be moribund, and the Central Intelligence Group, of very limited utility, was stymied by the departments of government in competition with it. In 1947, as part of the National Security Act (Public Law 80-253), which also established the Department of Defense and National Security Council, the Central Intelligence Agency became the legally authorized U.S. foreign intelligence organization. As Truman described his intentions to an aide several years later, he had wanted a unit to take the intelligence flowing to him from "200 different sources" and boil it down to make presentations—exactly the kind of activity at the heart of the intelligence cycle described at the outset of this narrative. Functions of the National Intelligence Authority were taken over by the National Security Council (NSC) while the CIA absorbed the Central Intelligence Group.
For several years the CIA grew slowly and gradually acquired missions. Covert operations and political action were added to the agency's basic analytical and espionage functions with the formation of the Office of Policy Coordination by NSC directive in 1948. A 1949 review by a panel of outside consultants found flaws in CIA operations and led to covert action and espionage both being merged in the Directorate of Operations (called the Directorate of Plans until 1973). Agency work interpreting photography led to formation of the National Photographic Interpretation Center in 1953, which the CIA ran on behalf of the entire intelligence community until the 1995 creation of the National Imagery and Mapping Agency. The need for development of machine spies obliged the director of central intelligence to conduct certain research programs, such as U-2, SR-71, and CORONA development, directly out of his own office, but this became formalized in 1962 with creation of the Directorate of Science and Technology (called Directorate of Research until 1964). The Directorate of Administration is responsible for support, security, data processing, recruitment, printing, finance, logistics, training, and other functions.
Air Force General Hoyt S. Vandenberg, who played a key role in the elaboration of the original legislation creating the CIA, left intelligence shortly before the actual creation of the agency. President Truman continued to appoint military officers as his directors of central intelligence, with Admiral Roscoe Hillenkoetter presiding over the CIA's first few years but damaged by a controversy regarding whether the CIA had been surprised by the outbreak of the Korean War or by Chinese intervention in that conflict. Walter Bedell Smith, an army general, instituted important reforms, including strengthening CIA analytical capabilities with the Directorate of Intelligence and the Board of National Estimates. It was Smith who began the practice of assembling the interagency National Intelligence Estimates. Under President Dwight D. Eisenhower, DCI Allen W. Dulles emphasized covert operations and began the U-2 and other scientific development programs. Dulles served on into the administration of President John F. Kennedy, but the CIA's spectacular failure at the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, a covert operations disaster in April 1961, effectively bankrupted his leadership, and he left the CIA that fall.
During the 1950s the U.S. intelligence community as a whole assumed the basic shape it still retained at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Code-breaking branches of the army and navy had contributed greatly to the outcome of World War II, and each of the services had retained its unit subsequently; the air force and marines added their own radio intelligence branches as well. In search of better coordination, the joint Armed Forces Security Agency was created in 1949 but, beset by interservice rivalries, never achieved its intended effect. President Truman replaced this unit with the National Security Agency in 1952. President Eisenhower, concerned with the multiplication of satellite intelligence mechanisms, and with infighting over programs between the CIA and the air force, created the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) in 1960 (although its existence remained a secret until 1992). President Kennedy, upset with the tendency of the armed services intelligence branches to promote views favoring their parent services, set up the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) in 1961. Armed forces intelligence regenerated over time, and the services always remained crucial in the NSA-and NRO-led activities. Not until 1995, when President William J. Clinton approved formation of the National Imagery and Mapping Agency, a merging of offices from the Pentagon, CIA, NRO, and the services, was any new national-level intelligence agency added to the community. All these units are agencies of the Department of Defense. These agencies also operate in some of the most highly technical—and expensive—areas of intelligence work. The result is that the secretary of defense controls the vast majority (85–95 percent) of the intelligence budget even while the director of central intelligence carries the official mantle of leadership in the community.
Beginning with John A. McCone, director of central intelligence from November 1961 to April 1964, DCIs have made a more intense effort to lead the community, often through procedures for coordinating among the various agencies, multi-year budget studies, or setting requirements for intelligence collection. These efforts have met with very limited success. The Pentagon's control of a large proportion of appropriated funds has been a key obstacle but not the only one. In the case of the FBI and the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research, and certain other entities, small elements of large government departments participate in the intelligence community but are responsible to cabinet officials over whom the DCI has no authority. The actual degree to which a director of central intelligence can lead the intelligence community is a recurrent issue in American policy.
McCone and his successors, notably Richard Helms (1966–1973) and Williams E. Colby (1973–1975), faced the major task of integrating the new intelligence technologies into the old framework. Satellites, sophisticated electronic emissions receivers and recording devices, underwater receivers, airborne interception mechanisms, computer data handling and image interpretation, and many other innovations transformed the intelligence business during the 1960s and 1970s. In particular, the sheer volume of information collected that was deemed to have intelligence value grew astronomically. Finished intelligence reports that used all the new information were a great improvement over earlier products, as exemplified by the way the missile gap dispute was resolved through the advent of satellite photography. But management of the new mechanisms, scientific research and development for intelligence purposes, funding these expensive systems, and finding ways to use the information without compromising the security of intelligence collection all posed problems for community leaders. These issues recur as new generations of intelligence technology reach the hands of operators.
The opposite side of the same coin is the need for old-fashioned spies, "human intelligence." The machines gather vast amounts of information whose importance is difficult to gauge. The inside information given by agents is often a key to interpretation. This issue became salient during the 1970s, and virtually every policy review of intelligence since then has upheld the need for more human intelligence sources. In response to the felt need, the CIA redoubled efforts to recruit agents. During the Cold War the agency enjoyed considerable success; in the Vietnam War and against China spying proved more difficult. On terrorism and drug trafficking, key intelligence questions of the 1990s and the twenty-first century, the need for spies was still acute. At the same time evolving human rights and moral standards make unacceptable the recruitment of agents whose character would have been ignored in an earlier age. There will be continuing tension between different aspects of agency interest in human intelligence.
A thorny issue that has also recurred for U.S. policymakers is the degree to which intelligence does, or should, directly impact on U.S. foreign policy. The ideal concept has been that intelligence speaks truth to power; that is, secret information to policymakers informs decisions that are made on the basis of this private knowledge. In theory, the information is disinterested and devoid of private agendas; in practice this is often not the case, even for simple intelligence analysis. One reason alone justifies the existence of the CIA, despite the many objections made about it: this organization provides presidents and their top officials with a source of information independent of the government departments responsible for actions. Military intelligence traditionally takes the most dire view of the threat, thus justifying large defense budgets and weapons purchases to counter that threat. In war, military intelligence reports most optimistically on the results of operations. In the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, and the Kosovo War (1999), military intelligence estimates of the effectiveness of bombing in every case had to be revised downward after they were made. During the Vietnam War, there were notorious controversies between the military, both air force and DIA, and the CIA over the degree of success obtained in bombing North Vietnam. For its part, State Department intelligence sees possibilities for negotiation where none may exist. Here, too, the CIA can play a cautionary role.
However, the pure archetype of intelligence theory is difficult to achieve in fact. Directors of central intelligence can be, and have been, asked for their opinions on policy subjects. The mere act of a president putting his DCI on the spot by asking an opinion takes the CIA (and the intelligence community more broadly) out of the role of neutral arbiter and inserts it into the policy process as an interested player. Declassified records of the National Security Council, which are currently available for a period spanning the 1940s through the 1970s, show DCIs Allen Dulles, John A. McCone, Richard Helms, William Colby, and George H. W. Bush all commenting on policy, not merely intelligence matters. When more documents covering these and later periods become available, they will undoubtedly demonstrate the same pattern for other DCIs. It is the president's prerogative to solicit advice from anyone, not excepting intelligence officials, but this adds to the difficulty of preserving separation between intelligence and policy roles.
Another facet of the problem of preserving a separation in roles arises from the DCI's responsibility to protect intelligence sources and methods. That statutory responsibility may conflict with policy in ways we are not aware of today. Desire to protect an intelligence source may lead a director to furnish disguised or watered-down information that presents less than a full picture. Conversely, full disclosure may result in compromise of sources. For example, it has been reported that during the Carter administration, a leak from an NSC staffer led the Soviet Union to arrest aircraft designer Adolf Tolkachev, who had been one of the CIA's most valuable sources. Directors of central intelligence must be aware of the dangers that lie at the nexus of policy and intelligence.
A further aspect to the policy-intelligence conundrum is that the CIA, and the intelligence community more broadly, do have certain policy interests. In particular, these arise when intelligence engages in covert operations. Political action in western Europe during the Truman administration; paramilitary operations in the Far East, South Asia, and Latin America during the Eisenhower administration; and paramilitary actions in Nicaragua, Angola, Cambodia, Mozambique, and Afghanistan during the Reagan administration all represented real U.S. foreign policy initiatives in which the CIA was a principal player. To say that agency advice to a president can be divorced from policy interests in such cases is wishful thinking. It is also nugatory to argue that such covert operations are small items that can safely be ignored within the confines of a larger global policy. The Kennedy administration's failure with the CIA invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs in 1961 had major impact on Kennedy's predispositions in many policy areas. The Iran-Contra affair during the Reagan administration triggered a near-constitutional crisis in the United States. Another Reagan-era covert operation, the CIA paramilitary action in Afghanistan, encouraged the development of, and provided weapons and training to, fundamentalist Islamic guerrillas who transformed themselves into anti-U.S. terrorists in the years after the war. As of 2001, Islamic terror was construed to be one of the top national security threats to the United States. Programmatic interests in supportive capabilities, such as military special forces, intelligence satellites and booster rockets, information and propaganda resources, and so on, are clearly also areas where intelligence has an actual policy stake. In short, the separation of intelligence from policy has always been imperfect and waxes and wanes depending on the president, his policy proclivities, and the constellation of senior officials surrounding the chief executive.