The CIA Turns 60 — and It's Not a Secret

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President Harry Truman signed the act that created the CIA in 1947, around the start of the Cold War with the Soviet Union. More recently, the agency has suffered intelligence failures and dozens of senior officials walking out in 2004.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Think of this week as a landmark. An agency that is at the center of the war on terror is turning 60. The Central Intelligence Agency was created for a different conflict. President Truman signed the act that created it in 1947 around the start of the Cold War with the Soviet Union.

In more recent years, the agency has suffered through the intelligence failures of 9/11 and the flawed intelligence on Iraq, and the moment in 2004 when dozens of senior officials walked out. Agency officials insist those days are gone.

So NPR's Mary Louise Kelly reports on the state of the CIA.

MARY LOUISE KELLY: The state of the CIA this week is pretty festive. Tonight there is a big birthday bash at Langley headquarters; and yesterday under a big tent and a clear blue sky, about 200 people gathered to mark one of the agency's historic successes.

(Soundbite of color guard)

KELLY: Behind the color guard sat a hulking titanium giant of a plane - the A-12. A-12 spy planes flew missions over North Korea and North Vietnam in the 1960s. They remain the fastest, highest-flying piloted jets around. And they remain a source of pride for the CIA.

General MIKE HAYDEN (Director, Central Intelligence Agency): The A-12 is without a doubt one of the greatest technical achievements in CIA's history.

KELLY: That's CIA director Mike Hayden, speaking at the ceremony to mark the arrival of an A-12 for permanent exhibition at CIA headquarters. And there's another reason for the good mood prevailing at Langley. This week saw the return of Michael Sulick as the new head of the clandestine service. Sulick has a long history at the agency. He's already held the number two job in the clandestine service.

But he was one of those we mentioned who walked out in 2004 following clashes with the staff of then-director Porter Goss. Sulick still has a lot of fans inside the agency and his return has been greeted with relief.

Mark Lowenthal was an assistant director of the CIA until 2005. He says morale these days is running high.

Dr. MARK LOWENTHAL (Former Assistant Director, Central Intelligence Agency): The building has settled down after a period of tremendous turmoil. People seemed to, you know, be more focused on their work.

KELLY: The CIA points to the 130,000 job applications that poured in this year; also to the record number of trained case officers graduating from the Farm, that's the agency's spy school in Virginia. But not all the news is so good. The CIA is still struggling to find people who can speak key languages - Arabic, Chinese, Urdu. A quarter of all job applicants say they can speak a foreign language, but CIA tests find only 12 percent are actually proficient. Then there's the dearth of experience in CIA ranks. More than 40 percent of current CIA employees have been hired in the past five years.

Peter Hoekstra, the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, says the CIA is on the wrong track and that its problems start at the top.

Representative PETER HOEKSTRA (Republican, Michigan): You know, I said early on when General Hayden was nominated that he might be the wrong person at the wrong place at the wrong time. And I was hoping that I would be proven wrong. I've not seen evidence of that.

KELLY: Hoekstra is particularly incensed by that decision to bring back Mike Sulick to head overseas operations. Hoekstra believes with that move General Hayden is sending a message.

Rep. HOEKSTRA: He's told the bureaucracy, don't worry, I'm not going to have you make any changes. As a matter of fact, I'm bringing back the faces of the past. Not only have they been brought back, they've been promoted. So I think the sign here is there will be no changes at the CIA.

KELLY: CIA Director Hayden declined our request for an interview, but his spokesmen strongly dispute the notion that their boss is opposed to change. And CIA veteran Mark Lowenthal says the only signal being sent by the return of Mike Sulick is that a seasoned spy will be running the clandestine service.

Mr. LOWENTHAL: This is among the most dangerous and most politically sensitive things that we do in intelligence - espionage, covert action. That is not the place where you want to bring somebody in with a new impression and know nothing about the business.

KELLY: Right now current and former CIA officials say agency staff are focused on the core missions - fighting terrorism, tracking nuclear threats, stealing secrets; that and maybe scoring a piece of birthday cake tonight.

Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News, Washington.

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