Central Intelligence Agency

Central Intelligence Agency
Central Intelligence Agency

The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) occupies a central place in U.S. conspiracy theory. In its efforts to acquire intelligence relevant to U.S strategic interests, the CIA has created a vast web of information sources, from foreign double agents to the most prestigious of U.S. universities, and this expansive network offers the innumerable connections, coincidences, and causal links upon which conspiracy theory thrives.

Furthermore, the CIA’s work has historically extended beyond mere intelligence gathering. In addition to espionage and counterespionage, the Agency undertook numerous covert actions around the world, researched drugs and behavioral modification (or “mind control”), and even planned (and perhaps executed) the assassinations of foreign operatives and heads of state.

As the government agency charged with the duty of secretly conspiring, the CIA has been involved in numerous well-publicized conspiracies, and, consequently, has opened the door for ever greater flights of fancy on the part of conspiracy theorists who see CIA involvement everywhere. For along with the many conspiracies with which the CIA has been incontrovertibly linked, there are many more such theories that are either fantasized or “not yet proven,” depending on one’s point of view.


To be sure, the CIA has not been merely the passive target of conspiracy theory. As an organization, the CIA seems to be constitutively structured by paranoia—one cannot be a good spy without being a little bit suspicious, after all. The cold war, in particular, produced a type of paranoia that seems different only in degree, rather than in kind, from that of the anti-CIA conspiracy theorists that the Agency routinely dismisses as crackpot extremists. The crucial difference between the CIA and the average conspiracy buff, however, is that the former has the power and the will to act on its theories.

The Beginning of the CIA and Cold War Paranoia

The CIA was established by the National Security Act of 1947. Very much a postwar operation, its creation and structure bear the traces of U.S. reaction to World War II and the new political realities generated by the war’s conclusion. Politicians were especially wary of creating a secret police force; with memories of the German Gestapo in mind, the division between foreign intelligence (the CIA) and domestic policing and investigation (the FBI) was believed to be crucial.

Furthermore, there were questions as to whether the CIA, a peacetime organization, should be granted the same authority as its wartime predecessor, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), when it came to subversive operations against foreign powers.

The ability to execute covert operations was effectively granted, however, in the Central Intelligence Act of 1949, which gave the director of Central Intelligence authority to finance operations he deemed necessary, without giving an account to Congress. In the end, of course, the CIA’s involvement in botched covert action abroad and surveillance at home was to cause it great grief, particularly in the 1970s.

It soon became evident that the CIA’s major antagonist was the Soviet Union, and the vast majority of the Agency’s activities during the cold war were linked to the Soviet threat in one way or another. The CIA had become a major player in America’s overall strategic posture during the cold war.

Since the United States could not compete with the Soviet Union when it came to conventional warfare—the Soviets’ advantage when it came to sheer manpower was insurmountable— U.S. defense strategy involved nuclear deterrence combined with covert action by the CIA. The CIA thus became a major player in global politics, and both the CIA and the KGB tended to see their adversary’s conspiring hands behind every event.

Sometimes, this was indeed the case, as when in elections such as Italy’s in 1948 the CIA and the Communists financed opposing candidates. The structure of this type of secret warfare lends itself to paranoia, and the CIA’s responses to the Soviet threat often seem to have been as infected with delusional paranoia as any of the conspiracy theories the CIA routinely dismisses as irrational or extremist.

Covert Operations

No doubt one of the reasons for the CIA’s prominence in so many conspiracy theories is the fact that conspiracy is one of the CIA’s key jobs— “covert action” is the term for this particular job, and, at times, the CIA has done it rather well. Though the Agency always ensures that it maintains “plausible deniability,” its actions are often discovered after the fact.

In August 1953, for example, the Iranian government of Prime Minister Mohammed Mosaddeq was overthrown and an imperial government, led by the Shah, was set up. Former CIA agents claim that the coup was engineered by the small force of five Agency officers secretly ensconced in a Tehran basement with $1 million in funds as their sole weapon (used to organize paid street mobs among other things).

This particular CIA conspiracy managed to keep the vast oil resources of Iran from being nationalized, securing the strategically important energy for the West, and gaining U.S. oil companies (Gulf, Standard, Texaco, and Mobil) a healthy share of Iranian oil rights.

This pattern was to repeat itself elsewhere. In Guatemala in 1954, the CIA helped to overthrow a democratically elected president, Jacobo Arbenz Guzman, replacing him with a dictator, Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas. The CIA’s involvement in the coup helped the United Fruit Company immensely, as that company feared that the new government might cut down on their Guatemalan profits.

In 1970, the democratically elected leader of Cambodia, Prince Norodom Sihanouk, was deposed and replaced with the pro-American Marshal Lon Nol. In September 1973, revolutionary forces assisted by the CIA overthrew the socialist government of Chile and killed the country’s democratically elected leader, Salvador Allende.

Of course, not all attempted covert operations were successful. Attempted coups in Indonesia in 1958 and North Vietnam in 1954 did not proceed as planned, and the Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961 was an utter failure. Most disastrously for the CIA, the Bay of Pigs fiasco gained much more press than any of the Agency’s successes (for obvious reasons).

This negative publicity led to an increase in CIA-related conspiracy theories and an overall depreciation in the Agency’s international prestige. Also diminishing the CIA’s international reputation were rumors of numerous assassination plots the Agency had hatched, if not actually executed, throughout the years.

Allegations that the CIA had a hand in Che Guevara’s death have never been proven beyond doubt, but the CIA’s explorations of plans to assassinate Cuban leader Fidel Castro, Dominican Republic dictator Rafael Leonidas Trujillo, and Patrice Lumumba of the Congo are now well known.

In time, critics began to charge that the CIA was expending too much of its resources on covert action at the expense of intelligence, which was, after all, its primary purpose. Furthermore, public distaste for the sorts of regimes the CIA tended to support created great controversy. Ultimately, President Gerald Ford claimed that the CIA should use covert action only to support well-established democracies and banned assassination completely.

Behavior Modification

One could argue that the CIA’s own “paranoia” lay behind the Agency’s extensive research into behavioral modification. Faced with phenomena such as the Communist show trials and the confessions signed by U.S. prisoners of war in Korea (in both cases individuals seemed brainwashed into confessing to crimes they did not commit), the CIA became convinced that the Soviets had developed mind-control techniques, and thus that the United States had better develop these same techniques as a matter of national security.

In Projects Artichoke, MK-ULTRA, and MKSEARCH, the latter two under the leadership of the now infamous Sidney Gottlieb, the CIA investigated the operational potential of marijuana, LSD, hypnosis, sensory deprivation, electroshock therapy, and even, more surprisingly, parapsychological possibilities such as telekinesis, precognition, and telepathy.

In one experiment, Project Artichoke head Morse Allen hypnotized two of his secretaries and commanded one to shoot the other with a nearby pistol. The secretary took the unloaded gun and pulled the trigger. These experiments within the Agency were quite common, with MK-ULTRA agents at one point agreeing to slip each other LSD at any time to observe its effects when administered by surprise.

Ultimately, however, it was obviously more desirable to get test-subjects from the outside world, particularly for those experiments that the CIA agents wouldn’t dare perform on themselves. On one front, the CIA began to fund research in universities and drug treatment programs.

In some such programs mental patients were kept on daily doses of LSD for up to seventy-seven consecutive days. On another front, the CIA continued itself to perform experiments on unwitting subjects, now luring prostitutes and small-time criminals back to apartments in which they would be slipped the drug and observed.

Ultimately, in Operation Midnight Climax, the prostitutes were recruited and offered cash to lure clients back to the apartments, where the CIA could perform drug experiments and also collect information on “perverse” sexual practices that might later have operational value.

The CIA was clearly exceeding its authority in performing these operations on domestic soil, and, as the facts of these experiments slowly leaked out, those who believed the CIA to be nothing but an insidious, control-oriented conspiracy of sorts were provided with ample proof of their theories.

From JFK to the Senate Inquiry—the Rising Tide of Public Suspicion

In 1967 Jim Garrison, the New Orleans district attorney, launched his own investigation into the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Not satisfied with the Warren Commission’s inquiry two years earlier, Garrison was convinced that the assassination had been a conspiracy, that Oswald was not the lone gunman.

Garrison charged New Orleans businessman Clay Shaw with masterminding the plot, but as the investigation wore on, it became clear that Garrison believed more powerful forces lay behind the tragic series of events— specifically, the CIA and the “military-industrial complex.” Answering conspiracy theory with conspiracy theory, the CIA began to entertain the possibility that Garrison was in league with the KGB.

And even today, according to an extensive article published in its own intelligence journal, the Agency suspects that the supposed link between the CIA and the JFK assassination was itself the result of an extensive Communist disinformation operation involving socialist-leaning newspapers from Rome to Canada (see Holland).

Even if Garrison was merely, in the words of a pro-CIA historian, “a mendacious district attorney adept at manipulating the Zeitgeist of the late 60s” (Holland), it was a sign of things to come for the CIA. The 1970s saw a wave of stunning revelations concerning the CIA’s activities at home and abroad (including the covert operations and behavioral modification programs mentioned above).

A series of high-profile government inquiries kept the CIA on the front pages for years: the Commission on CIA Activities Within the United States in 1975 (“The Rockefeller Commission”); the Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities (“The Church Commission”); the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s hearings on the MK-ULTRA program in 1977; and the 1979 report of the House Select Committee on Assassinations.

These hearings—the transcripts of which are publicly available—provided key information for historians and conspiracy buffs alike. Furthermore, the sheer strangeness of many of the stories contributed to the general belief that the CIA was capable of anything, and, thus, expanded the possible range of CIA-related conspiracy theory.

The public discovered that the CIA wanted to cause Castro’s beard to fall out, assuming that this would rob him of his powerful “machismo.” The Agency also considered soaking one of his cigars in LSD. They dreamed up schoolboy antics like stink bombs and diarrhea stimulation as ways of embarrassing foreign leaders.

Even animals were not safe—CIA-funded scientists performed lobotomies on apes and stuck them in sensory deprivation chambers; they cut the heads off of monkeys, attempting to surgically attach them to other monkeys; agents even trained dolphins to attack enemy divers with large hypodermic needles armed with compressed air containers. The hyperbolic strangeness of these activities seemed to invite the public to come up with ever wilder conspiracy theories.

Proliferating Conspiracy Theories

As CIA activities became more widely publicized, it became easier and easier for foreign politicians to accuse the CIA of meddling. CIA involvement in the deposition of Prince Norodom Sihanouk of Cambodia, for instance, has been disputed, but the book Sihanouk wrote in exile, My War with the CIA, found a receptive audience because the CIA’s known activities made the Sihanouk scenario seem quite likely.

To be fair, the CIA has a difficult time defending itself, since most of its documents are classified; furthermore, even when it releases documents, large sections are invariably blacked out, leading to ever greater suspicion on the part of the reader.

As the keeper of the country’s deepest secrets, the CIA is inevitably implicated in a whole host of “unexplained” phenomena and wild suspicions. The CIA, founded the same year of the supposed alien landing in Roswell, New Mexico, has been accused both of covering up the existence of extraterrestrial life and of having manufactured UFO hysteria as a “tool for cold war psychological warfare” (Haines).

While MK-ULTRA as a project is in the past, theories about CIA mind control have reinvented themselves for the twenty-first century, with some arguing that the CIA is secretly implanting microchips inside human bodies (often in the skull) as a way of tracking and controlling individuals.

Both at home and abroad, the CIA has become a wonderfully useful subject for conspiracy theorists, capable of connecting what is seemingly unconnected, of explaining the unexplained (in Hollywood today its use as such is prevalent to the point of cliché). And with its increasing budget, power, and overall significance following the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, the proliferation of CIA-related conspiracy theories shows no signs of abating.