No agency of the federal government is so shrouded in mystique and intrigue as the Central Intelligence Agency. There’s nothing the spooks at Langley can’t do, no rule they can’t break, no evil or good they can’t perform with clinical coldness. Need a bad guy assassinated? CIA assassin. Need files stolen, computers hacked, paramilitary commandos radioed in, wars fought, uprising suppressed, revolutions started—CIA, CIA, CIA, CIA, CIA, CIA. Of course, mixed in all of this is an awful lot of exaggeration, and most of it is outright untrue. This isn’t a bad thing if you are the CIA: it certainly makes bad guys think twice before going crosswise the interests of the United States. To help separate fact from fiction, here are a few myths about the Central Intelligence Agency.
“James Bond is basically real, and the CIA has his equivalent: foreign assassins.”
This is perhaps the most pernicious myth about the CIA. Look, it’s not totally untrue. The CIA can and has killed people. It’s not their proudest activity, but it has happened. It’s efforts alone to kill Fidel Castro have become the stuff of legend. But in 1976, after Congress raked the Company over the coals, President Ford put a stop to assassination efforts, going so far as to condemn it outright. The agency followed the order, with one Honduran interrogator describing its interaction with American spies as one of deception: because CIA officers now expressly forbade the Hondurans from participating in torture or assassination, Honduran officials had to keep their “high value targets” secret, and torture and kill them without the U.S. intelligence service finding out.
Then came the terrorist attacks on September 11. Fearing that a follow-on attack could come at any time, Vice President Dick Cheney ordered the Company to form assassination teams to take out senior al-Qaeda terrorists. The CIA had problems getting the teams running, however: despite what movies would have you believe, there were some thorny logistical issues that made hit jobs almost impossible. According to the New York Times: “How could the role of the United States be masked? Should allies be informed and might they block the access of the C.I.A. teams to their targets? What if American officers or their foreign surrogates were caught in the midst of an operation? Would such activities violate international law or American restrictions on assassinations overseas?”
The assassin squads were never mobilized. When CIA Director Leon Panetta learned of the efforts in 2009, he immediately killed the program and informed Congress. So, no—as far as we know, no American James Bond equivalents are screwing silencers on the ends of pistols and taking out slick European financiers of terror. Which means it’s not true that…
“…the CIA has been rendered toothless in the war on terror.”
None of this is to say that the CIA got out of the targeted killing business. President Obama was known to have personally ordered drone killings involving the CIA; the agency would use its assets to find and monitor the target, and the military would fire the missiles. Such hazy and shifting lines of authority extended to the Bin Laden raid. The Abbottabad mission was technically a CIA operation, with Navy SEALs, for legal reasons, placed under the titular authority of CIA Director Leon Panetta, though Admiral William McRaven ran the operation.
Recently, the White House made headlines by giving the CIA direct authority to conduct drone strikes. How that plays out remains to be seen.
“The CIA is spying on Americans and listening to our phone calls.”
Since the 1970s, when CIA operations were greatly restricted, the agency has pulled way, way back on questionable activities, not the least of which involves spying on U.S. citizens. To the extent that Americans abroad can fall under CIA scrutiny at all, it has to be related to a serious foreign espionage or terrorist operations in which the American is directly involved, and even then, the CIA requires approval by the Director of National Intelligence and the Attorney General. Surveillance and counterintelligence activities involving American citizens in the continental United States are generally conducted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
And if someone is going to listen in on your phone calls, it’s going to be the National Security Agency. (See: “5 Myths About the National Security Agency” for more on that.)
“CIA agents are all superspies, lie about their jobs, answer to no one, and spend their days recruiting assets and running operations.”
Basically, none of that is true. For most, the Company is a nine to five job. Analysts aren’t superspies parachuting into foreign lands; they work behind desks in Virginia, and their jobs are to be the world’s foremost subject matter experts on things like the political situation in Guinea-Bissau. To be an analyst, for the most part, is as close to being an academic researcher as you can get without having a dot-edu email address.
The CIA’s National Clandestine Service, on the other hand, inserts CIA officers into foreign lands, where they recruit foreign agents (the terms have very specific meanings). And yes, such CIA officers do have covers. As for answering to no one, just the opposite: the agency is under constant oversight from the House and Senate by way of laws and hearings; the National Security Council for direction and policy; the courts when possible violations of the law come to light; the CIA inspector general, who is accountable to the American people and not the Company; and the White House Office of Management and Budget, which keeps close watch on what pennies are spent where.
“The CIA is hiding the aliens.”
X-Files fans know this is probably true. Though Mulder and Scully worked for the FBI, they were the good guys—trying to figure out how high the alien conspiracy reached. But it was the CIA, and in particular an internal group called the Syndicate, who were actively working with extraterrestrials to make alien-human hybrids.
As far as we know, this is not true. (See ClearaceJobs’s “5 Myths About Area 51”.) In fact, the CIA has a pretty nice guide on how to investigate, document, and report UFO activity, based on the U.S. Air Force’s Project BLUE BOOK in the 1940s. Maybe it’s all a great misdirection, but I think it’s a sign that if ever the CIA were involved in studying unidentified aerial phenomena, those days are over.