STEVE INSKEEP, host:
The Central Intelligence Agency may operate in the shadows, but it's in the middle of another uncomfortable period in the spotlight. Justice Department memos have reignited debate over whether CIA interrogation practices were legal or moral or even practical, and this is not the first time the agency has been under scrutiny. NPR's Mary Louise Kelly has this look back at defining moments in the CIA's history.
MARY LOUISE KELLY: When the Central Intelligence Agency was created back in 1947, its raison d'etre was to fight the Soviets. By most accounts it was a fight with no holds barred. And through the 1950s, �60s and early �70s, the CIA worked largely in the shadows, out of view of the prying eyes of Congress.
Back then, the big issues weren't terrorism or torture, but there were mounting revelations of domestic spying, and rumors of assassination plots against foreign leaders. Finally, on January 27th, 1975, the Senate voted to establish what came to be known as the Church Committee.
(Soundbite of gavel pounding)
Senator FRANK CHURCH (Democrat, Idaho): The hearing will please come to order.
KELLY: Senator Frank Church was a liberal Democrat from Idaho. He presided over 21 public hearings. At the first, Senator Church pulled out a poison dart gun -evidence, he said, that the CIA violated a presidential order by keeping a stock of shellfish toxin that could kill thousands. All through 1975, NPR and other news organizations devoured tidbits like that from the hearings.
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Mr. JOSH DARSA (NPR Anchor): From the nation's capital, for National Public Radio, this is Josh Darsa speaking. The Senate Select Committee investigating intelligence activities today called James Angleton.
KELLY: James Angleton, the CIA's legendary counterintelligence chief. In all, the Church Committee interviewed 800 people. Loch Johnson was working as Senator Church's staff assistant. He remembers sitting in the hearing room as witnesses aired decades of dirty laundry.
Mr. LOCH JOHNSON (Former Church Committee Staffer): Certainly the assassination plots were dramatic. We had no idea. There were rumors floating around, had been for a number of years, and here it turned out to be true. So that was shocking, and particularly the notion that the CIA had hired the Mafia to help it to go after Fidel Castro in Cuba and take his life.
KELLY: As a result of the Church investigation, both the Senate and the House created permanent committees to monitor the CIA. The White House stepped up oversight. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act was born to help prevent unauthorized spying on Americans. And some argue the Church investigation also gave birth to a cycle that persists today. Former White House counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke describes the CIA as bipolar.
Mr. RICHARD CLARKE (Former White House Counterterrorism Chief): They are. They're either very, very aggressive and in historical terms go overboard, or they're in one of these periods where they're recovering from an investigation and then they go into five, 10 years of being risk-averse. It's a pendulum swinging from one extreme to the other. They can never seem to get it right.
KELLY: Clarke tracks the cycle like this: that after the Church Committee came years when the CIA was reluctant to take risks. Then came the 1980s and the Iran-contra scandal, an illegal operation selling weapons to Iran and funneling the profits to the Contra rebels in Nicaragua. The fallout from Iran-Contra destroyed some CIA careers. And after that, Clarke says, the agency entered another period where no one wanted to take a risk.
Mr. CLARKE: So if you fast-forward to the 1990s, when I'm in the White House trying to get them to do something about al-Qaida, something very aggressive about al-Qaida, in fact to kill people, they don't do it. And the reason they don't do it is they're afraid the winds are going to change, some other White House is going to come in and say, what do you mean, you killed people? They were afraid, very risk-averse.
KELLY: This is a version of history that CIA officials don't buy. Here's George Tenet, who led the CIA from 1997 until 2004, speaking to the 9/11 Commission.
Mr. GEORGE TENET (Former CIA Director): The idea that they're risk-averse, couldn't get the job done, weren't forward-leaning, I'm sorry, I've heard those comments, and I just categorically reject them.
KELLY: Certainly after 9/11, the gloves came off. We now know that after the attacks, the CIA set up a network of secret prisons where suspected terrorists were kept off the books and subjected to brutal interrogation techniques. One detainee, 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, was waterboarded 183 times during the month of March 2003.
Yet more than a year later, Tenet's successor at the CIA, Porter Goss, testified that what the CIA needed was a more aggressive approach. Goss spoke at his Senate confirmation hearing in 2004.
Mr. PORTER GOSS: (Former CIA Director): I believe that the message is out there - nice spies is not the formula right now.
KELLY: Goss promised, in his words, to give spies more leash. There are differing views over whether he succeeded in that. What is beyond dispute, says Richard Armitage, is that in those first few years after 9/11, the CIA was under, quote, almost unbelievable pressure. Armitage, who was deputy secretary of state from 2001 to 2005, says the agency was racing to deliver intelligence that would prevent another attack.
Mr. RICHARD ARMITAGE (Former Deputy Secretary of State): They wanted to be in a position, I believe, of leaving no stone unturned. But they also wanted to stay inside the law because they realized if history is a guide, they're the ones left holding the bag.
KELLY: The important thing was to get in writing what you were and weren't allowed to do.
Mr. ARMITAGE: Well, get in writing at a significant level.
KELLY: Meaning from senior lawyers at the Justice Department. The torture memos that have caused such a stir represent the views of top Bush administration lawyers in response to requests from the CIA for guidance on how far it could go to get suspected terrorists to talk.
Loch Johnson, the former Church Committee staffer, disagrees with the picture of a rogue agency that swings back and forth between flouting the law and cowering behind it. Johnson, who's now a professor at the University of Georgia, sees, instead, a nation conflicted over what it wants from its spies and presidents who change the rules.
Mr. JOHNSON: I would fault the Bush administration for not being a little better in clarifying what those boundaries were. So I think we, unfortunately, in responding to the 9/11 crisis, entered a domain in which we began to erase some of the boundaries that the Church Committee had established � much to the detriment of the country's reputation around the world.
KELLY: For CIA officers working in the field today, the debate over whether Bush administration attorneys pushed the CIA to become more aggressive, or whether it was the other way around, is somewhat academic.
Bob Baer, who worked undercover for the CIA for 21 years, says his takeaway from recent events is this�
Mr. BOB BAER (Former CIA Agent): It's always the CIA that gets the blame at the end of the day. You go back to the Bay of Pigs, and the CIA always salutes and says, yes, we'll do it, and then they get the blame. And it's unfortunate because the CIA, I still believe, is one of the few organizations in Washington that will tell a president the truth. And if we destroy that through this process, we're going to be sorry for it.
KELLY: On Capitol Hill right now, the Senate Intelligence Committee is in the middle of a year-long investigation of CIA interrogation practices. The chair of the committee, California Democrat Dianne Feinstein, is asking the very same question Senator Church posed back in 1975.
Senator CHURCH: Whether the CIA, together with other intelligence agencies, have been adhering strictly to the law.
KELLY: Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News, Washington.