The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency marks its 60th birthday on Tuesday [9/18/07]. The agency has had a colorful and often controversial history.

American intelligence officials past and present point to the December 7, 1941 surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor as the defining moment for the creation of a centralized U.S. intelligence agency.

Former CIA officer Eugene Poteat says there was enough information to warn of an impending Japanese attack, but it was scattered around various sectors of the U.S. government and there was no one to put the pieces together.

"We were caught by surprise. And we had all the intelligence we needed, but it was spread around through so many different agencies we couldn't put it all together. In other words, even in those days, we couldn't connect all the dots," says Poteat. 

Origins of the CIA

So President Franklin Roosevelt created the Office of Strategic Services, or OSS, to carry out espionage and sabotage in German and Japanese-occupied territories. The OSS was disbanded in 1945. But both before his agency faded into history and after the war's end, OSS chief William Donovan was lobbying vigorously for a postwar central intelligence agency to ensure that America's leaders would not make policy in ignorance.

"America cannot afford to resume its prewar indifference. 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," Donovan said at a time. 

On September 18, 1947, the Central Intelligence Agency was born when the National Security Act passed by Congress and signed by President Truman, went into effect. In the early days, the CIA was heavily staffed with OSS veterans who brought their wartime expertise and no-holds-barred wartime methods with them.

Successes and Failures

Former CIA officer Peter Earnest, who now runs the popular International Spy Museum in Washington, says the early CIA was a very different and more high-spirited creature in the Cold War era than it is today. "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, whether it was in intelligence collection or covert action -- that is, confronting the Soviets across the board."  

But the CIA has been 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 as the 1953 coup in Iran that installed Mohammad Reza Pahlavi as the Shah, or ruler, and the overthrow of Salvador Allende's elected government in Chile in 1973. But as intelligence officers are quick to point out, such operations were always ordered or approved by the president.

In his new history of the CIA entitled Legacy of Ashes, journalist Tim Weiner says the agency's record is not very good. "The legacy of operational failures is long, very long, and the successes don't always stand."

Weiner says the CIA lacks the experience and patience of nations such as Britain and Russia who throughout history sent their intelligence officers into countries for long periods. "They lived there for generations. And they learned to speak the language and they became part of the political landscape. We don't do generations. We do two-year rotations," says Weiner. "And so you don't get deep country knowledge, or speak the language very well, or know the history and culture of the place. And we don't get deep into the fabric of the societies and the countries that we want to command and control and contain."

Former CIA deputy director John McLaughlin admits there were intelligence failures, but says Weiner is unfair to the agency. "Yes, the CIA has taken more than its share of criticism, which is not to say that it's a perfect institution. There's no perfection in this business. There is no, as there is in private industry, no concept of profit and loss. How do you weigh a hundred successes against one failure?"

McLaughlin points to the CIA's quick response in Afghanistan after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and the breakup of the A.Q. Khan nuclear proliferation network as examples of shining -- and publicly known -- successes.

Many CIA veterans say that U.S. officials became too reliant on technological intelligence collection to make up for failures to recruit human spies. Eugene Poteat, who helped design the earliest spy planes like the U-2 and the SR-71, says technology is only one tool in the arsenal of espionage.

"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. We did rely on it too much to the extent that the human spies did, in fact, take second fiddle, if we can say," says Poteat. 

Current History

But 60 years after Pearl Harbor and billions of dollars spent on intelligence, the United States was the target of another surprise attack on September 11, 2001. The debate over the failure to intercept the plans for that attack continues. Former CIA deputy director John McLaughlin says the CIA and other spy agencies knew that something was coming, but did not know where or when.

"In the case of 9/11, I would say what we had there was a tactical intelligence failure, but not a strategic one because there was no lack of effort, no lack of attention. The intelligence community, and in particular the CIA, was working flat out and gave ample warning on a strategic level that we were going to be attacked, but failed to understand the time and target involved. And therefore, it was a tactical intelligence failure," says McLaughlin. 

Almost half of the CIA's current workforce has been hired since September 11, 2001. This new computer-literate generation of analysts and field officers is now on watch, snooping with technology Cold War spies never imagined.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program, VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.