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Brief History: Secret CIA Missions

2 minute read
Randy James

The Central Intelligence Agency was designed to work in the shadows. But Director Leon Panetta’s recent allegations that the Bush Administration conceived a covert program to assassinate al-Qaeda leaders have blindsided even those lawmakers accustomed to its stealthy habits.

They shouldn’t be shocked. Secret overseas operations are nothing new for the CIA, which was created in 1947 with the broad authority to conduct foreign intelligence missions. In 1953 the agency orchestrated a coup against Iranian Premier Mohammed Mossadegh that returned the pro-American Shah to power. Over the ensuing decade, it supported coups and assassinations in places such as Guatemala and the Dominican Republic to install leaders considered sympathetic to U.S. interests. Despite this legacy, many Americans were unaware of the CIA’s clandestine operations until May 1960, when a U-2 spy plane was downed over the Soviet Union. The folks in Langley, Va., suffered another collective black eye from the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba the following year.

In the 1970s, Congress and the Ford Administration sought to rein in the CIA by creating oversight committees and instituting a ban on assassinations. Some restrictions were eased in the ’80s, when the agency backed Afghan mujahedin fighting against the Soviets and meddled in Central America. And since 9/11, the agency has attracted a new load of critics, this time for matters such as “extraordinary renditions” and the harsh interrogation of suspected terrorists in secret overseas prisons known as black sites. Poor Langley–praise is a scarce commodity for an agency whose missions, as President George W. Bush put it, remain “secret even in success.”

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