Recent events involving the former NSA employee Edward Snowden thrust topics relating to the intelligence community to the national conversation’s front page. Now, with Snowden’s revealing the PRISM spying program, domestic spying and the American intelligence community are no longer subjects confined to civil libertarians. Consequently, if we wish to have an informed and rational discussion, we need to explore the history of the intelligence community. For, history informs us where this particular group is going and in what manner, among other things. Finally, we will examine what is to be done with the situation at hand.

Commentators, writers, and documentaries often fling around the term “intelligence community” without taking time to define what this “community” actually is. While general usage of the term “community” often refer to organic and naturally forming groups (i.e. the conservative community, the hacker community, the literary community, etc.), the American “intelligence community” ties directly to government. Most of this community is government, with a significant minority of private contractors. Some of the government entities that exist as part of the intelligence community are the Central Intelligence Agency, National Security Agency, all branches of the military, Homeland Security, the Treasury Department, and others.

As is obvious from the listing of the intelligence community’s members, it is a large group. We cannot examine it in its entirety, so we must confine ourselves. Out of the many members, perhaps the most prominent are the CIA and NSA, considering their roles and activities.

During World War II, the Allies created an espionage agency called the Office of Strategic Services. With the war over and the American government worrying about the perceived threat of global Communism, the government formed the CIA. It is at this point that the true narrative diverges from the CIA of popular imagination.

Legacy of Ashes, Tim Weiner’s excellent and well-researched history of the CIA, sheds much light on the CIA’s early ventures. Although most Americans would likely describe the Cold War CIA as an agency either of fascinating James Bond-like agents or ultra-secretive masters of espionage, this was hardly the case. From the beginning the CIA exhibited incompetence. The “Agency” failed in its meddling from Central America to Asia and appeared a budgetary black hole to those in government. (As an interesting side note, essentially all CIA agents dropped behind enemy lines during the Korean War were killed or defected to the enemy.) As time passed, the Agency looked more like a hive of failed paranoiacs pleading for more money. But the government didn’t shut down the CIA, as the Agency convinced enough in government of its vital need, its imminent success, and impending Soviet attacks. (Again, it is worth noting that the CIA, especially in Cold War Germany, often exaggerated how much information it possessed and the information’s relevance.)

After the American disaster in Southeast Asia, the CIA’s embarked on some of its most nefarious activities. Some of these included supposedly smuggling drugs and the infamous MKUltra project—which included giving test subjects LSD and experimenting with “mind control.” But perhaps the CIA venture with the widest effects in the post-Vietnam era was its support of an insurgent group fighting the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. This insurgent group’s name was the Taliban, and a man prominent figure in this movement was Osama bin Laden. Without support, the Taliban could not have survived. And, consequently, the Taliban’s survival changed the course of American history, along with many other nations.

The National Security Agency came about several years after the CIA. Though many areas within the Defense Department resisted the idea of further concentration of such cryptologic and intelligence duties. Through much debate and inter-departmental conflict, President Truman finalized the NSA’s birth in 1952. Soon after its creation, the NSA spread itself throughout the world, recruiting and training new members. Interestingly, from the beginning, the NSA and CIA shared a close relationship from their early days, though not always a good one—as the agencies competed for information. But, the NSA’s own history, American Cryptology during the Cold War, notes how the two agencies worked together. For example, they cooperated in jamming radio signals, though the animosity between the agencies persisted.

Compared to the CIA, far fewer broad historical accounts relating to NSA are readily available, but we see the NSA continuing through the Cold War in a similar fashion. As its primary function was cryptology, it built enormous supercomputers and dove further into ensuring lines of communication for the American government were secure.

Although, like the CIA, the NSA encountered its own controversies. Some of these involved the ECHELON program, a partnership of the American and several Commonwealth governments in intercepting satellite communications; wiretapping Americans; and creating and putting programs into practice data mining software.

So now that we have gone through the CIA and NSA’s histories, what should be done with these agencies?

The CIA clearly started terribly. They immediately deviated from their original purpose—gathering intelligence—and subsequently embarked on ever-growing and costly covert adventures, toppling governments and supporting rebels. Ideally, a much smaller and more moral agency would replace a dismantled CIA. On the other hand, such a course of action encounters two major problems. First, eliminating a government program is difficult alone and doing the same for an entire intelligence agency presents a challenge equal to producing a working time machine. Second, let’s suppose that a smaller agency, focused only on gathering intelligence within the confines of America’s constitutional philosophy replaced the CIA. What prevents this agency from further manipulating information in order to grow its budget and power, as it did in the Cold War’s early stages?

The issues with the NSA present more practical problems. With the likely continuing leaks relating to domestic spying, we face the same questions relating to the CIA. Additionally, what is to be done with the information the NSA already collected? Again, as with the CIA, we must question if the NSA should exist.

So, the question then becomes what degree of supposed safety Americans desire. After all, isn’t a prison safer than a free society? But even prison reveals rife violence, strife, and corruption. Perhaps there is a greater potential danger without massive surveillance agencies, but has the CIA, with its support of Islamist militants from 1980s Afghanistan to the Arab Spring, and the NSA, with a behemoth data-mining program, made us safer? Yes, life outside of prison might carry greater statistical dangers, but at least free men may come together in a responsible and just manner to sail on freedom’s vast ocean, in their attempt to land on some fruitful shore.


Christian Lopac | Wabash College |