With the breakup of the Soviet Union, the CIA began to search for new roles to justify its existence--and the money it requires, which totaled $3.1 billion in its request to Congress late last year. [1]

That spring, the CIA had discovered that Aldrich Ames, a career CIA officer and son of a career CIA officer, had for several years been systematically betraying its agents in the Soviet Union, at least 12 of whom were executed for treason. The juxtaposition of the Soviet breakup and the revelations about Ames trigger inevitable questions: Does the CIA have a meaningful role in the post--Cold War world? If so, what is it?

In its early days, the only spies serving the United States were brave amateurs, the most notable among them Nathan Hale. During the Civil War, the federal government hired the Pinkerton detective agency to do its spying, but the agency's success was modest. In World War I, the United States depended on the French and British secret services and made no attempt to launch its own. Only by the beginning of World War II did President Franklin D. Roosevelt ask William J. Donovan, a World War I hero, to set up an American intelligence organization, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS).

Donovan threw himself into the task with boundless energy and enthusiasm, and the result was a lighthearted hodgepodge. Among the earliest branches of the organization were those devoted to research and analysis, whose officers mostly focused on activities like poring over old French engineering magazines in the Library of Congress to winnow out details of the roads and bridges of North Africa. An espionage branch quickly followed, and another devoted to "black propaganda"--the publishing and broadcasting of news purporting to come from the enemy. Donovan then added branches concerned with sabotage, commando operations, guerrilla work with resistance movements, forging documents, and collecting snapshots taken by tourists before the war and analyzing them for military purposes.

After the war President Harry S Truman broke up the OSS. He transferred the research and analysis branch, which employed almost 1,000 people, to the Department of State, abolished most of the more esoteric branches, including the one dealing with guerrilla warfare, and parked the branches concerned with collecting intelligence by espionage and other covert means in the office of the assistant secretary of war to await a final decision.

The decision came with the National Security Act of 1947, which Truman hoped would unify the armed services under a secretary of defense. The major price for "unification" was the transformation of the U.S. Army Air Corps into a separate and independent Air Force; a minor price was the creation of an independent Central Intelligence Agency that would report directly to the president and the National Security Council.

The act clearly intended the CIA to conduct espionage--actually, it intended the CIA to have a monopoly over espionage. The law also clearly intended for the CIA to coordinate all aspects of both the collection and the analysis of intelligence. Almost immediately the CIA created a research and analysis branch to replace the one that had been transferred to the State Department.

Early in the Eisenhower administration, the CIA succeeded in persuading the president and the National Security Council to allow it to conduct covert political action. The authority CIA officials cited was the clause of the National Security Act directing the agency to "perform such other functions and duties related to intelligence affecting the national security as the National Security Council shall from time to time direct."

Code-breaking has been another intelligence function. In World War II the British broke the German secret codes with their Enigma system, and the Americans broke the Japanese codes with the Magic system. In the postwar era, the responsibility for breaking the codes of potential enemies and for seeing that U.S. codes were secure was given to the National Security Agency.

Still another set of functions has been the so-called esoterics. During the Cold War these included probing the perimeter of the Soviet Union with planes loaded with electronic devices to learn everything possible about Soviet radar, lofting various satellites to monitor other forms of electronic data, and employing fancy gadgets. Within this technological arsenal was the U-2 spy plane, which flew above the reach of Soviet antiaircraft defenses taking pictures of military installations inside the Soviet Union. The U-2 was very successful until May 1, 1960, when pilot Gary Powers was shot down by a greatly improved Soviet surface-to-air missile. Within a couple of years, a successor to the U-2 began flying, the SR-71 Blackbird. The SR-71 flew at a speed of over 2,000 miles per hour at an altitude of over 85,000 feet. It operated from 1964 until 1990, when it was retired, presumably because unmanned satellites could do the job just as well and with far less risk.

By the end of the Eisenhower administration the CIA's major roles were espionage, which was monopolized by the CIA; covert political action, also a CIA monopoly; certain intelligence esoterics, such as U-2 surveillance, performed by both the CIA and the Pentagon; and research and analysis, performed by the State Department, Army, Navy, Air Force, and the Defense Intelligence Agency of the Department of Defense. The question is: After the Cold War, which of these four functions should continue to be performed, and by whom?


The most important thing to be said about espionage is that even though the take can occasionally be crucial, relatively little information comes from espionage, and very rarely is it decisive. The reasons are obvious. Placing and maintaining agents in spots where they can gather decisive information is an extraordinarily delicate and difficult endeavor. Communicating with those agents after they are in place is intricate and time-consuming. The following examples, taken from World War I materials that are no longer classified, illustrate both these points.

Most of the belligerents began World War I with carefully woven networks of spies. The Germans, for example, had 25 agents in strategic positions all over the United Kingdom before the war formally began. Although Scotland Yard had sniffed them out, to avoid having to repeat a roundup on a new set of agents, the Yard did nothing but watch and wait. Immediately after the declaration of war the Yard arrested 22 of the 25, three having slipped out of the traps set for them and away to neutral countries. Germany was left without a single agent in the United Kingdom. The consequences were fateful. The Germans' Schlieffen plan called for a great turning movement with General Alexander von Kluck's army on the extreme right that would slice through Belgium and take Paris from the rear. But because German intelligence had been blinded, it was only when the Germans ran into British troops that they learned of the movement of the British Expeditionary Force to France--the kind of large-scale movement of men and matériel that is most difficult to conceal.

The counterespionage organizations in France, Russia, Germany, and Austria did not succeed in wiping out whole enemy systems in spectacular swoops, as the British had done, but slowly and methodically they captured one agent after another. In a few months almost all the Allies' secret agents were behind bars, and the few remaining were left without reliable means of communication. Faced with the same problem of starting from scratch, both sides tackled it by setting up bases in neutral countries such as Holland, Switzerland, Spain, and Sweden.

Scientific methods of crime detection, postal censorship, systems of identity cards and registration, and the natural suspiciousness of citizens in time of war guaranteed that any big effort at espionage would end in catastrophe. There were only two exceptions during World War I. One was spying on troop movements. The British, for example, succeeded in organizing a network of road- and rail-watchers in Belgium, directed from their embassy in the neutral Netherlands, to report the movement of German troops to the front. Although the casualty rate among agents was ghastly, Britain got a great deal of accurate information.

A prime reason for the British success was the inherent difficulty of hiding large-scale road and rail traffic, which any farmer can recognize and report accurately. Another was the loyalty of the Belgian people, who were all potential spies. Dutch neutrality, the long Dutch-Belgian border, and the sympathy of the Dutch border guards also helped in communicating intelligence reports.

The other exception to the general failure of espionage in World War I was in the uncovering of the enemy's secret weapons. To give just one example, in the early days of the fighting, poison gas was primarily delivered by creating a lethal cloud that was driven toward the enemy by the wind--which was liable to change direction and send the gas back to one's own lines. Thus, whichever side developed a method of putting gas into artillery shells first would gain a decided advantage. One of the few surviving French agents was Charles Lucieto, whose cover was a business in the Netherlands that required him to make frequent visits to Germany. On a trip to Frankfurt, Lucieto's curiosity was piqued when he noticed a railroad tank car leaving the I.G. Farben chemical works, headed in an unusual direction. He followed it to the Krupp munitions factories in Essen.

A few days later a battery of artillery appeared in the vicinity of Essen, followed by several carloads of high-ranking German officers in their spiked helmets. From a nearby hill Lucieto watched the artillery battery fire what appeared to be smoke shells toward a herd of sheep. When the smoke cleared, the sheep were all dead. Waiting until both officers and artillery departed, Lucieto walked over to the field and picked up some shell fragments. He sent them to France, where scientists were able to identify the nature of the gas, develop gas masks to counteract it, and distribute them to the troops before the Germans could capitalize on their achievement.

The explanation for the ability of espionage to uncover secret weapons lies in the difference between a weapon and a diplomatic move or plan for a military offensive. It takes much longer to develop a weapon, so espionage has a longer time to do its work. In addition, information about a diplomatic or military move is useless once the move is made or the attack begins, but information about a secret weapon is valuable whenever it arrives. So, except for intelligence on troop movements through Belgium and secret weapons, espionage netted little during World War I. The difficulty was in communicating with agents and getting their messages in time.

A good illustration is the French experience with their most strategically placed agent, who was in charge of security at German general headquarters. He had easy access to all military information, but most of his warnings arrived too late. His warning of General Erich Ludendorff's offensive in 1918, for example, was received ten days after the offensive had begun. But the greatest irony of all, in view of the years of effort and the lives risked and lost to maintain this single contact, was that on the few occasions when the agent's messages arrived in time the Allies had already learned about the coming offensive through air photographs and interrogation of German prisoners.

More recent examples are hard to come by, but one is the case of the Soviet colonel-turned-spy, Oleg Penkovsky, who made an important contribution to the discovery of Soviet missiles in Cuba. On one of his visits to the West, Penkovsky smuggled out a manual used by missile battalions in setting up medium- and intermediate-range missiles--a manual that was classified secret but not top secret. Although the photo-interpreters who discovered the missiles in Cuba had already gleaned much of what they needed from studying U-2 and satellite photos of missiles being put into position inside the Soviet Union, they found the manual useful.

As for the efficacy of espionage in recent years, Aldrich Ames' treason wiped out the take from espionage in the Soviet Union, but the United States was still able to follow events by monitoring Soviet press, radio, and television and by the routine means of diplomatic reporting. Actually it is questionable whether espionage would have made any significant difference in the way the United States reacted during the last years of the Soviet Union. It is even more questionable whether the difference would have been worth the enormous cost and effort of recruiting, maintaining, and communicating with the agents involved.

There is no reason to believe that espionage today is any better than it used to be. Its contribution to wise decisions in foreign policy and defense is minimal. But the cost in lives, treasure, and intangibles is high. Almost every American embassy in the world has its collection of CIA spooks. In some countries their role is merely to be liaison officers to the local intelligence organizations. But in others, even allies, it is much more sinister. And over time the harm that maintaining a CIA detachment in an American embassy can bring is corrosive. When the Kennedy administration came to office it found that a CIA man from the U.S. embassy in Tokyo was in jail in Singapore, having been arrested a few weeks earlier in an act of attempted subversion meant to provide an independent check on information supplied by the CIA's Singaporean counterpart, the Special Branch. With great difficulty the Kennedy administration persuaded Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew to let the CIA man go without any publicity. Years later, during another administration, when some tension arose between Singapore and the United States, Lee could not resist the temptation to make the affair public in a bitter denunciation.

Given the end of the Cold War and the breakup of the Soviet Union, espionage is obviously something the United States can do without. The costs exceed any possible gain.


A second major function of the CIA has been covert political action. The main exponent of covert action was Allen Dulles, the director of CIA from 1951 to 1961. Citing the Truman and Eisenhower doctrines, both of which specified that the United States would come to the aid of countries threatened by communism whose governments requested help, Dulles enunciated a doctrine of his own. He argued for the use of covert political action to foil communist attempts to take over a country whether or not there was a request for help.

In theory, Dulles' position is not unreasonable. If a great power--communist, fascist, militarist, imperialist, or whatever--is openly antagonistic to the rest of the world, and if this hostile power uses subversion to bring down foreign governments, then the countries that are targets of this hostility have a right and a duty to protect and defend themselves, even by covert means. At the very least, they may resort to such methods in cases like those in which covert methods have proved effective and appropriate and in which there is no effective, appropriate alternative.

The trouble is that these two qualifications have not always been observed by the United States. Covert political action became a fad, the answer to every kind of problem, and American agents became as ubiquitous and busy as communist agents.

In the years following the establishment of the CIA, especially after CIA director Walter Bedell Smith made the CIA a more effective organization in 1950-51, the United States for the first time came up against some of the perplexities of the postwar world and the communist threat. It met the direct communist challenge by building up its military strength and maintaining alliances. But again and again the United States had to face problems that did not yield to power alone: ineffective governments, graft, politically apathetic populations, indifferent leaders, communist subversion, terrorism, and guerrilla warfare. There were also instances in which the world would have regarded the naked use of power as petty bullying. There was a consensus in the foreign policy community at the time of the Bay of Pigs fiasco, for example, that it would be politically disastrous if the United States were to attack tiny Cuba overtly.

To many policymakers who confronted these dilemmas, covert political action seemed a way out. The United States could fight communist fire with fire. Since the action was covert, it promised to get around obstacles: the moral problem of intervention and the political problem of appearing to be a bully. Covert action also had an aura of omnipotence; like James Bond, the fictional Agent 007, it could seemingly accomplish the miraculous. But covert action was really nothing more than a gimmick. In special circumstances it was a potentially useful supplement, but nothing more.

Truman, who had reluctantly acquiesced in the creation of the CIA, lived long enough to express his concern that the agency had become an "operational and, at times, a policymaking arm of the government." He proposed that it be restored to its original assignment as the intelligence arm of the president. "We have grown up as a nation respected for our free institutions and for our ability to maintain a free and open society," he wrote in The Washington Post in 1963. "There is something about the way the CIA has been functioning that is casting a shadow over our historic position, and I feel that we need to correct it."

Covert action has been overused as an instrument of foreign policy, and the reputation of the United States has suffered. Covert has usually been defined not as completely secret but as plausibly deniable. But while one action may be plausibly deniable, several hundred are not. And while one action, taken in isolation, might seem worth the cost of slightly tarnishing the national image, the cumulative effect of several hundred blots has been to blacken it entirely, thus corroding one of America's major political assets--a belief abroad in American intentions and integrity. Covert political action is not only something the United States can do without in the post--Cold War world, it is something the United States could have done without during the Cold War as well.

If the United States gets out of the business of espionage and covert political action, it could eliminate all the CIA contingents it now maintains, except perhaps those engaged in liaison, in its embassies all over the world. The dollar savings would be substantial, the gain in political terms greater still.

Since the vast majority of the intelligence information on which U.S. policy depends comes from analyzing the open sources of foreign publications and broadcasts, routine diplomatic reporting, and the activities of newspaper reporters, and only a tiny fraction comes from espionage or covert action, the effect on the amount of information available to policymakers would be minimal.


When Henry L. Stimson took over as secretary of state in 1929, he discovered the department had a so-called Black Chamber--a group of people who had broken the Japanese codes. They had been very useful during the negotiations on the London Naval Treaty, but Stimson decided to abolish the Black Chamber anyway. In explanation, he later remarked that "gentlemen do not read each other's mail." [2]

In World War II, when gentlemen were not so easy to find in the various foreign offices, Stimson had no objections to code-breaking. And there should be none today. When it is successful, the product is often very helpful, and there are no risks involved. The same is true of the work of the Foreign Broadcast Information Service, which monitors and records broadcasts in various parts of the world. It is no different from reading other countries' newspapers. The U-2 and the SR-71 both violated the airspace of other countries, but there is an international consensus today that there must be some limit to national control over outer space and that restrictions should not apply to satellites, whether they are taking pictures or eavesdropping on electronic communications.

The National Security Agency should continue its work in trying to break codes and protect those of the United States, and monitor radio traffic. Clearly, the United States should also continue satellite reconnaissance in all its forms.


The research and analysis function of intelligence in the U.S. government is widely dispersed. The CIA has a research and analysis branch, the State Department has its Bureau of Intelligence and Research, and the Defense Department has its Defense Intelligence Agency. Modern general staffs have divisions for personnel, intelligence, plans and operations, and supplies--G-1, G-2, G-3, and G-4. So the Army has its G-2 to perform the research and analysis function, the Air Force has its A-2, and the Navy its Office of Naval Intelligence. All of these regularly do their own intelligence studies, and all participate in developing the national intelligence estimates and special national intelligence estimates through interdepartmental committees chaired by the CIA. The process culminates at the United States Intelligence Board, which is staffed by the heads of the departmental intelligence organizations and chaired by the CIA director.

In producing these estimates, the intelligence organizations analyze and interpret factual information and try to predict what is likely to happen, including whether a particular policy or course of action is likely to accomplish its goal. All policy hinges on such estimates, whether made by an intelligence organization or by a policymaker working without formal input.

Parenthetically, it should be noted that the CIA has been criticized for not predicting the breakup of the Soviet Union and that such criticism is unfair. The CIA and many independent analysts had identified the forces of nationalism that worked to break up the Soviet Union as well as the fear of Germany and the West that worked to hold it together. But predicting the timetable is something else again. After all, as head of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev was in a vastly better position to make such a prediction, and he not only failed to make it but enormously hastened the process by his decision to pull back from Eastern Europe.

There is no question that the research and analysis divisions of the CIA, State Department, Defense Department, Army, Navy, and Air Force compile useful reports and analyses. The question is whether analysis can be done more objectively by an agency separate from the one carrying out the resulting policy. A research and analysis office that is part of the State Department's Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, the argument goes, is less likely to be objective than one that is more independent, a part of the department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research.

The counterargument is that a research and analysis organization separated from action and policy is less likely to produce studies that are relevant and timely. Moreover, if the policy and action people are biased and emotionally committed to a particular policy, they will not pay attention to the independent group's work in any case. After the last Americans were pulled out of Vietnam, for example, the State Department conducted an internal review of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research's written reports on the war. It showed that the bureau had been pessimistic during the entire war, had consistently doubted that the war could be won, and had consistently implied--if not argued outright--that the best policy would be a U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam. Yet the effect those reports had on decision-makers in the State Department and the White House had been slight.


After the Bay of Pigs fiasco, President Kennedy greatly curtailed the CIA's authority to conduct such operations and assigned oversight responsibility to the president's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. The State Department machinery for dealing with CIA proposals for intelligence and covert action was reorganized and given greatly increased power. During the rest of the Kennedy administration, the number and scope of the CIA's clandestine operations were much reduced. But the main proposal for reorganizing the research and analysis function was put aside. That proposal, from the State Department's intelligence bureau, argued that the United States would profit from copying the British system.

The American system was (and is) to have the CIA collecting information through espionage, esoteric means, the Foreign Broadcast Information Service, and so on. The CIA also has its own research and analysis branch and responsibility for coordinating the research and analysis functions of the other government departments.

In Great Britain the arrangement is quite different. Espionage is conducted by a separate organization that reports to the top level of the British Foreign Office. Research and analysis is conducted by an organization separate from the espionage organization, the Foreign Office, and the military.

The State Department's reform proposal recommended that the research and analysis branches of the CIA and the State Department be merged into one independent organization that would serve the White House, State Department, and Pentagon. The proposal died.

The United States should get out of the business of both espionage and covert political action. However, the CIA should still have an important role to play as the independent research and analysis organization contemplated in the early 1960s. The State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research, the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency, and at least those divisions of the Army, Navy, and Air Force intelligence agencies dealing with political questions should be transferred to the CIA, along with the relevant career civil servants. Substantial duplication could be eliminated, for substantial savings. The details can be debated, but it seems obvious that the CIA and the entire intelligence community should be subjected to a thorough examination and some fundamental decisions made about the kind of intelligence organizations the United States needs in an age no longer dominated by a cold war with the Soviet Union.

[1] By mistake, a congressional budget committee published a breakdown of the money to be allocated to the entire intelligence community, normally hidden in the budget of the Pentagon. The documents described $26.7 billion of the estimated $28 billion intelligence budget authorized by Congress. The CIA asked for $3.1 billion, the Pentagon intelligence agencies (the National Security Agency, the National Reconnaissance Office, and the Defense Intelligence Agency) asked for $13.2 billion, and the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and their respective special operations units requested $10.4 billion for their tactical intelligence activities. See "$28 Billion Spying Budget Is Made Public by Mistake," The New York Times, November 5, 1994, p. 54.

[2] Henry L. Stimson and McGeorge Bundy, On Active Service in Peace and War, New York: Octagon Books, 1947, p. 188.

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  • Roger Hilsman is Professor Emeritus of Government and International Relations at Columbia University. He served in the U.S. Office of Strategic Services in the mid-1940s and during the 1950s was Assistant Secretary of State for Intelligence and Research and Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs.
  • More By Roger Hilsman