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At 75, the CIA is back where it started - countering the Kremlin

As the CIA's marks its 75th anniversary, Russia's war in Ukraine is giving the spy agency a new direction after dark periods during the U.S. conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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CIA Director William Burns testifies before the House Intelligence Committee in March. Burns has focused the agency more on U.S. rivalries with Russia and China. He's been involved in the public release of U.S. intelligence on Russia's military plans in Ukraine, and he's established the China Mission Center at CIA headquarters.
CIA Director William Burns testifies before the House Intelligence Committee in March. Burns has focused the agency more on U.S. rivalries with Russia and China. He's been involved in the public release of U.S. intelligence on Russia's military plans in Ukraine, and he's established the China Mission Center at CIA headquarters. Susan Walsh | AP

At its creation in July 1947, the CIA delivered briefings to President Harry Truman that would still sound current in today's news feeds.

The many examples include American citizens who couldn't get exit visas to leave the Soviet Union. Moscow's financial and trade disputes with Europe. And intrigue over Soviet dealings with Iran.

Here's CIA Director William Burns just last week at the Aspen Security Forum:

- "These are awful and shameful steps, (for Russia) to hold American citizens for political leverage."

- Russian leader Vladimir Putin's "bet is that winter's coming, so he can strangle the Ukrainian economy and wear down European publics and leaderships."

- "Russians and Iranians need each other right now. But if they need each other, they don't really trust each other."

So the storylines are familiar. But it's often been a turbulent journey since Truman signed the National Security Act that created the spy agency. Truman's explicit goal was to centralize the multiple and sometimes contradictory intelligence streams coming into the White House from separate U.S. military branches, law enforcement and the State Department.

President Harry Truman signs the National Security Act on July 26, 1947. The measure created the CIA, the National Security Council and the military's Joint Chiefs of Staff.
President Harry Truman signs the National Security Act on July 26, 1947. The measure created the CIA, the National Security Council and the military's Joint Chiefs of Staff. National Archives

Over the decades, CIA successes included keeping close watch on the Soviet Union with spy planes, satellites and human agents so Cold War tensions didn't spiral out of control.

Failures often involved military adventures gone awry, such as the disastrous Bay of Pigs operation in 1961, just one of many unsuccessful attempts to oust Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

"The great successes the CIA has had have been the way in which it reduced the possibility of confrontation in a nuclear age," said Tom Blanton, who heads the National Security Archive, a private research group in Washington that studies the U.S. intelligence community. "You really enhanced American national security over all those years by giving us much better information about the world."

But Blanton is quick to add, "the places where the CIA has gone wrong has been in its handling of agents, its covert operations, its paramilitary, which raised the possibilities of confrontation, raised the danger."

This April 1961 photo shows Cuban exiles captured at the Bay of Pigs when they returned to the island in an attempt to oust Cuban leader Fidel Castro. The CIA-orchestrated operation was one of the worst fiascos ever for the U.S. spy agency.
This April 1961 photo shows Cuban exiles captured at the Bay of Pigs when they returned to the island in an attempt to oust Cuban leader Fidel Castro. The CIA-orchestrated operation was one of the worst fiascos ever for the U.S. spy agency. MIGUEL VINAS | AFP via Getty Images

One of the agency's darkest periods was the early 2000s. First came the failure to foresee the al-Qaida attacks on 9/11. This was followed by the false assessment on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. Then came the CIA's torture program of terror suspects.

Stanford University's Amy Zegart said that program did lasting damage to the CIA's record.

"As Mike Hayden, former CIA director, has said very colorfully, any president that wants to approve waterboarding in the future should bring his own bucket," said Zegart, the author of Spies, Lies and Algorithms.

The 9/11 attacks put the CIA on a dramatically different course. The agency went from an emphasis on traditional spy work — collecting intelligence and recruiting foreign spies — to a focus on paramilitary operations.

The CIA was a central player in the fights that greatly weakened al-Qaida, the Islamic State and others.

But former CIA officer Doug London said the agency lost sight of its core mission.

"The focus on counterterrorism really put the United States and the CIA on a kinetic path, really moving it away from operating in the shadows and more as an extension of the military," said London.

London says his own 34-year career at the CIA mirrored this transformation.

"Where the first 17 years of my career was really focused on Russia and other principal rivals, that changed overnight, on 9/11, to terrorism," he said.

The President's Daily Briefing is the top-secret intelligence report the CIA presents to the president every weekday. The book shown here is for a briefing delivered to President George W. Bush in 2002.
The President's Daily Briefing is the top-secret intelligence report the CIA presents to the president every weekday. The book shown here is for a briefing delivered to President George W. Bush in 2002. Damian Dovarganes | AP

And so it went until he retired in 2018. His final job was overseeing the CIA's counterterrorism efforts in Afghanistan.

He says the urgency of the U.S. wars meant the CIA wasn't paying enough attention to evolving threats elsewhere.

"Russia and China were becoming much more aggressive in applying the rules of this hybrid warfare of disinformation that the United States was very slow to adapt to," said London, emphasizing a theme he writes about in his book, The Recruiter: Spying and the Lost Art of Intelligence.

Amy Zegart puts it this way: "Intelligence officers should be gatherers. Military officers are hunters. And the more the CIA is hunting, the less the CIA is gathering. There's a real need for the agency to move away from its counterterrorism, battlefield-focused operations to put more time and more attention on these strategic questions."

CIA Director Burns is moving in that direction.

He's created a China Mission Center dedicated to the country seen as the most serious long-term U.S. adversary. However, this project is seen as a major challenge given China's vast, cutting-edge surveillance systems that make the country so difficult for foreign intelligence agencies to penetrate.

More immediately, Russia's invasion of Ukraine has also ushered in a new chapter for the CIA.

As the agency came to believe Russia was planning an attack, Burns flew to Moscow late last year and spoke with Putin.

"Burns could say, 'Look, we're listening to you guys. We know you're going to go in. I just want to tell you: bad idea. It's not going to work out for you,' " Tom Blanton said. "Putin wouldn't hear him, but it was great intelligence. The CIA knew something that the individual Russian soldier on the front line did not know."

In addition, the Biden administration went public with some of the U.S. intelligence on Russia's plans — a move met by skepticism — until it proved accurate.

"I think this was a signature moment for the agency," said Zegart. The CIA "put the truth out before the lie, saying, 'Don't believe a word Vladimir Putin's going to tell you. He's lying.' "

This approach, she said, is likely a blueprint for the future.

Greg Myre is an NPR national security correspondent. Follow him @gregmyre1.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Transcript :

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Born at the dawn of the Cold War, the Central Intelligence Agency is marking the 75th anniversary of its founding. Over the past two decades, the spy agency hit some of its darkest moments during the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But Russia's war in Ukraine has given the CIA a renewed focus in line with its original mission. NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre has our story.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: At the CIA's creation in July 1947, the early intelligence briefings delivered to President Harry Truman still sound pretty current today, like American citizens who couldn't get exit visas to leave the Soviet Union and intrigue over Moscow's dealings with Iran. Here's CIA Director William Burns just last week.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WILLIAM BURNS: These are awful and shameful steps to hold American citizens for political leverage.

Russians and Iranians need each other right now. But if they need each other, they don't really trust each other.

MYRE: So the storylines may be familiar, but it's often been a turbulent journey since Truman created the spy agency. His clear intent was to centralize the multiple and sometimes contradictory intelligence streams coming in from separate military branches and the State Department. Successes included keeping a close watch on the Soviet Union with spy planes, satellites and human agents so that Cold War tensions didn't spiral out of control. Failures often involved botched military adventures, like the Bay of Pigs in 1961, one of the many attempts to oust Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

TOM BLANTON: The great successes CIA had has been the way in which it reduced the possible confrontation in a nuclear age.

MYRE: Tom Blanton heads the National Security Archive. It's a private research group that studies the U.S. intelligence community.

BLANTON: You really enhance American national security - they did over all those years - by giving us much better information about the world.

MYRE: But Blanton is quick to add...

BLANTON: The places where the CIA has gone wrong has been in its handling of agents, its covert operations, its paramilitary, which raised the possibilities of confrontation, raised the danger.

MYRE: One of the agency's most troubled periods was the early 2000 - first, the failure to foresee the al-Qaida attacks on 9/11, then the false assessment on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, and then the torture program of terror suspects. Stanford University's Amy Zegart is the author of "Spies, Lies, And Algorithms." The torture program, she says, remains a permanent stain on the CIA's record.

AMY ZEGART: As Mike Hayden, former CIA director, has said very colorfully, any president that wants to approve waterboarding in the future should bring his own bucket.

MYRE: The 9/11 attacks put the CIA on a dramatically different course. The agency went from an emphasis on traditional spy work - collecting intelligence and recruiting foreign spies - to a focus on paramilitary operations directed at groups like al-Qaida. Former CIA officer Doug London says the agency lost sight of its core mission.

DOUG LONDON: The focus on counterterrorism really put the United States and the CIA on a kinetic path, really moving it away from operating in the shadows and more as an extension of the military.

MYRE: London says his own 34-year career at the CIA reflected this.

LONDON: Where the first 17 years of my career was really focused on Russia and in other principal rivals, that changed overnight, on 9/11, to terrorism.

MYRE: And so it went until he retired in 2018. His final job was overseeing the CIA's counterterrorism effort in Afghanistan. London says the urgency of those U.S. wars meant the CIA wasn't paying enough attention to evolving threats elsewhere.

LONDON: Russia and China were becoming much more aggressive in applying sort of the rules of this hybrid warfare of disinformation, information, economy, military that the United States was very slow to adapt to.

MYRE: Amy Zegart puts it this way.

ZEGART: Intelligence officers should be gatherers. Military officers are hunters. And the more the CIA is hunting, the less the CIA is gathering. So there's a real need for the agency to move away from its counterterrorism, battlefield-focused operations to put more time and more attention on these strategic questions.

MYRE: CIA Director Burns is moving in that direction. He's created a China Mission Center dedicated to the country seen as the most serious long-term U.S. adversary. Russia's invasion of Ukraine has also ushered in a new chapter. In an unusual twist, the CIA went public with some of the intelligence on Russia's military plans - a move met by skepticism until it proved accurate. Again, Amy Zegart.

ZEGART: I think this was a signature moment for the agency. We put the truth out before the lie, saying, don't believe a word Vladimir Putin's going to tell you. He's lying.

MYRE: This approach, she says, is likely to be a blueprint for the future. Greg Myre, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.