Skip to main content Skip to Search Box

Definition: CIA from Collins English Dictionary

abbreviation for

1 Central Intelligence Agency; a federal US bureau created in 1947 to coordinate and conduct espionage and intelligence activities

Summary Article: Central Intelligence Agency
From The Columbia Encyclopedia

(CIA), independent executive bureau of the U.S. government established by the National Security Act of 1947, replacing the wartime Office of Strategic Services (1942–45), the first U.S. espionage and covert operations agency. While the CIA's covert operations receive the most attention, its major responsibility is to gather intelligence, in which it uses not only covert agents but such technological resources as satellite photos and intercepted telecommunications transmissions. The CIA was given (1949) special powers under the Central Intelligence Act: The CIA director may spend agency funds without accounting for them; the size of its staff is secret; and employees, exempt from civil service procedures, may be hired, investigated, or dismissed as the CIA sees fit. Under the U.S. intelligence agency reorganization enacted in 2004, the CIA reports to the independent director of national intelligence, who is responsible for coordinating the work and budgets of all 15 U.S. intelligence agencies. To safeguard civil liberties in the United States, the CIA is denied domestic police powers; for operations in the United States it must enlist the services of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Allen Welsh Dulles, director from 1953 to 1961, strengthened the agency and emboldened its tactics.

The CIA has often been criticized for covert operations in the domestic politics of foreign countries. The agency was heavily involved in the failed 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, deeply embarrassing the United States. In 1971 the U.S. government acknowledged that the CIA had recruited and paid an army fighting in Laos. In 1973 the CIA came under congressional investigation for its role in the Pentagon Papers case. The agency had provided members of the White House staff, on request, with a personality profile of Daniel Ellsberg, defendant in the Pentagon Papers trial in 1973, and had indirectly aided the White House “Plumbers,” the special unit established to investigate internal security leaks. This direct violation of the National Security Act's prohibition led Congress to strengthen provisions barring the agency from domestic operations.

Its foreign operations came under attack in 1974 for involvement in Chilean internal affairs during the administration of Salvador Allende, and in 1986 it was shown to be involved in the Iran-Contra affair. Diminished in the early 1990s after the end of the cold war, it began rebuilding later in the decade, accelerating the process after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. It was subsequently hurt, however, by the revelation that Director George Tenet had insisted, prior to the Iraq invasion of 2003, that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, and the quality of the intelligence that it had provided was criticized. One result of the intelligence failures relating to Sept., 2001, and Iraq was the reorganization of 2004, which demoted the director of the CIA and made the CIA one of several agencies overseen by the new position of director of national intelligence. The agency has been damaged also by revelations that it used torture in the aftermath of Sept., 2001; a Senate report released in 2014 asserted that the CIA's own documents indicate that the agency's claims of the utility of brutal interrogation were wrong.

  • See publications by the CIA History Staff;.
  • see also Ransom, H. H. , The Intelligence Establishment (rev. ed. 1970);.
  • McGarvey, P. J. , CIA: The Myth and the Madness (1972);.
  • Breckinridge, S. D. , The CIA and the U.S. Intelligence System (1986);.
  • Ranelagh, J. , The Agency (1986);.
  • Turner, S. , Secrecy and Democracy; The CIA in Transition (1986);.
  • Marshall, J. , The Iran-Contra Connection (1987);.
  • Treverton, G. F. , Covert Action (1987);.
  • Agee, P. , On the Run (1987);.
  • Jeffrey-Jones, R. , The CIA and American Democracy (1989);.
  • Thomas, E. , The Very Best Men: Four Who Dared: The Early Years of the CIA (1996);.
  • Weiner, T. , Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA (2007);.
  • Prados, J. , The Family Jewels: The CIA, Secrecy, and Presidential Power (2013).
The Columbia Encyclopedia, © Columbia University Press 2018

Related Articles

Full text Article Central Intelligence Agency
Encyclopedia of Intelligence & Counterintelligence

Although the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was officially founded by the National Security Act of 1947, the CIA actually dates back to World...

Full text Article Central Intelligence Agency
The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

US intelligence organization established in 1947. It gathers intelligence about foreign governments and is responsible for providing national securit

Full text Article director of central intelligence
Encyclopedia of American Foreign Policy

The position of director of central intelligence (DCI) was established by the 1947 National Security Act. According to it, the DCI was the primary a

See more from Credo