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US Central Intelligence Agency 60 Years Old this Month

The Central Intelligence Agency marks its 60th birthday this month. The CIA has had a colorful and often controversial history. In this background report, VOA correspondent Gary Thomas looks at the CIA's past and its current state.

Some historians say various sectors of the government had enough information to warn of the impending Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. But no one -- as spies say -- connected the dots.

That led President Franklin Roosevelt to create the Office of Strategic Services to carry out espionage and sabotage in German and Japanese-occupied territories.

Sixty years after Pearl Harbor and billions of dollars spent on intelligence, the United States was the target of another surprise attack on September 11th, 2001. The debate over the failure to intercept that attack continues.

With the end of the war the old OSS faded into history -- replaced by the CIA on September 18, 1947.

The man known as "Wild Bill" -- OSS chief William Donovan -- lobbied vigorously for a post war intelligence agency to ensure that America's leaders would not make policy in ignorance. "America cannot afford to resume its prewar indifference," he said, "and here's a fact we must face: today there is not a single permanent agency to take over in peace time certain of the functions which OSS has performed in war time."

Former CIA officer Peter Earnest joined the agency in the 1950s. Earnest, who now runs the International Spy Museum in Washington, says the agency was a very different creature in the Cold War era. "It was a very heady atmosphere. We were very highly mission-oriented. We really did feel we were the front line of the United States in fighting the Cold War."

Oleg Kalugin, once a major general in the Soviet intelligence service, says the KGB [Soviet-era intelligence service] did not take the CIA lightly. "In terms of professional respect, the KGB viewed the CIA as, well, equal counterparts. In fact, this is part of Russian intelligence and counterintelligence cultures: never underestimate your adversaries."

But the CIA has often come under fire for intelligence lapses such as the failure to foresee the collapse of the Soviet Union and the mistaken assertion that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.

Most controversial were the CIA's covert actions, such the 1953 coup in Iran that installed the Shah, or the overthrow of the Salvador Allende government in Chile in 1973 -- both by presidential order.

In his new history of the CIA, journalist Tim Weiner is sharply critical of the CIA's 60-year record. "The legacy of operational failures is long, very long, and the successes don't always stand."

But former CIA deputy director John McLaughlin says that, while the CIA deserves criticism, Weiner is being unfair to the agency. "I have serious concerns about Tim Weiner's book. It could be subtitled 'Failures-Are-Us' because it looks at every single episode in CIA history and finds something dark about it, something that is a failure. And he even turns many successes into failures."

McLaughlin sees success in the CIA's quick response in Afghanistan after the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks and the breakup of the A.Q. Khan nuclear proliferation network.

Still, many CIA veterans concede that the U.S. officials came to favor spy technology in place of the spies themselves -- or what professionals call "HUMINT," human intelligence.

Former CIA science and technology officer Eugene Poteat, who helped design an early spy plane -- the SR-71, says technology is only one tool in the espionage arsenal. "Spying has war-winning potential. And the only way you can get what the enemy is thinking and planning and his intentions is through human spying. You can't do that with a satellite or even an aircraft."

Former deputy CIA chief John McLaughlin says in the wake of the September 11th terrorist attacks, it is especially important to get a proper balance when collecting intelligence. "Right now, the pendulum is over to the side of the spectrum that says HUMINT, that is, classic espionage -- human spies -- are the keys to success. But we have to be careful not to do that to the exclusion of technology. Where we make a mistake is when we put all of our eggs in one of these baskets."

Almost half of the CIA's current workforce was hired after September 11th, 2001. This new computer-literate generation of analysts and field officers are now on watch -- snooping with technology the old Cold War spies never envisioned.