From a recently declassified article, written by an author whose name was redacted, published in the winter 1986 issue of Studies in Intelligence, the in-house journal of the CIA.
As the Central Intelligence Agency approaches its fortieth birthday, those of us in the clandestine service know that we go to great lengths to abide by the intent as well as the letter of U.S. law. We draw considerable satisfaction from the knowledge that a long sequence of presidents, national-security advisers, ranking ambassadors, and informed senior military officers have placed great value on our product and relied on us to acquire foreign intelligence and carry out covert-action directives.
As one of the relatively few clandestine-services officers who have the opportunity to talk to and be questioned by new junior officers from the Department of State and the U.S. Information Service, I have been exposed to questions about the agency that bespeak a perception of us and our role that is dramatically different from the one we have of ourselves. There seem still to be large numbers of well-read and presumably intelligent U.S. citizens who perceive that we are assassins, blackmailers, exploiters of sex and illicit drugs, as well as the creators of our own foreign policy. Many see little difference between the Directorate of Operations and the KGB, believing that at the core we are basically secret police. Others of our soon-to-be colleagues believe that we will monitor their activities and maintain files on each of them. They believe that our case officers must surely be psychologically scarred from career-long tussles with morality.
Some of the more outrageous questions we have been asked are:
“Is the major function of the CIA to report on foreign nations and their policies or to observe and detect leaks by U.S. government employees?”
“How does the CIA justify using assassination?”
“Approximately how many assassinations has the CIA attempted, and how many U.S. citizens have been killed or ‘disappeared’ by the CIA?”
“Does the CIA officially admit its complicity in the assassination of Salvador Allende?”
“Has the agency ever killed one of its own when it appeared that he might defect?”
“Are there limits to the activities the CIA will undertake in the pursuit of ‘the national interest,’ and, if so, who determines those limits?”
“Does the agency always believe the end justifies the means?”
“What percentage of CIA operatives leave the organization for admitted moral or ethical reasons?”
“Can you name any ‘bad things’ that Soviet espionage agents do that we do not?”
“Has there been an increase in CIA-sponsored terrorism in the past five years?”
“What does your wife think of your job?”
“Did you join the CIA because you did not pass the Foreign Service exam?”
“Don’t you feel any reservations about serving in an organization that will instruct you to sleep with people?”
Fortunately, the picture is not as bleak as those questions, which come again and again, would indicate. Even among our supporters there seems to be little appreciation for the critical need and role of integrity, discipline, and creativity in the work of the clandestine service. These new officers are frequently astounded to discover that we are driven by objectives. And these young people are, in the main, bright, motivated, and well read, though they are relatively long on education and short on life experience.
How can it be that perceptions about us differ so radically from reality in the minds of many of these well-educated, presumably objective young individuals? It is, I believe, pertinent that one of the Soviet propaganda objectives over the past two decades has been to turn “CIA” into a dirty word. The Soviets have had considerable help from the persistently prurient (and sometimes misinformed) U.S. media. The leaks, accurate or inaccurate, together with some of our acknowledged missteps, have made the job of the KGB propagandist easier. Even so, it is safe to say that the Soviet propaganda machine has been tireless in carrying out its self-appointed role as our principal public-relations outlet.