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The CIA and Foreign Policy

President Ronald Reagan with Caspar Weinberger, George Shultz, Ed Meese, and Don Regan discussing the President's remarks on the Iran-Contra affair, Oval Office 1986. Ronald Reagan Library

Over the years, public views of the Central Intelligence Agency and its role in American foreign policy have been shaped primarily by movies, television, novels, newspapers, books by journalists, headlines growing out of congressional inquiries, exposés by former intelligence officers, and essays by "experts" who either have never served in American intelligence, or have served and still not understood its role. The CIA is said to be an "invisible government," yet it is the most visible, most externally scrutinized and most publicized intelligence service in the world. While the CIA sometimes is able to refute publicly allegations and criticism, usually it must remain silent. The result is a contradictory mélange of images of the CIA and very little understanding of its real role in American government.

Because of a general lack of understanding of the CIA’s role, a significant controversy such as the Iran-contra affair periodically brings to the surface broad questions of the proper relationship between the intelligence service and policymakers. It raises questions of whether the CIA slants or "cooks" its intelligence analysis to support covert actions or policy, and of the degree to which policymakers (or their staffs) selectively use—and abuse—intelligence to persuade superiors, Congress or the public. Beyond this, recent developments, such as the massive daily flow of intelligence information to Congress, have complicated the CIA’s relationships with the rest of the executive branch in ways not at all understood by most observers—including those most directly involved. These questions and issues merit scrutiny.

II

The CIA’s role in the foreign policy process is threefold. First, the CIA is responsible for the collection and analysis of intelligence and its distribution to policymakers—principally to the president, the National Security Council (NSC) and the Departments of State and Defense, although in recent years many other departments and agencies have become major users of intelligence as well. This is a well-known area, and I will address it only summarily.

Second, the CIA

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