Report - Intelligence Project

Report: Marking the CIA’s 75th Anniversary: Reflections on the Past, Visions of the Future


Since its creation in 1947, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has been at the heart of supporting United States foreign policy and national security decision-making. From the early days of the Cold War to Russia’s war against Ukraine, the CIA has been a critical instrument of foreign intelligence collection, analysis, and operations. However, the CIA is often misunderstood, as its own work and history, particularly its successes, are rarely seen by the public. To help unpack this storied history, and in honor of the agency’s 75th anniversary, on September 16, 2022, former directors, officers, scholars, students, and the public gathered to discuss the past, present, and future of the agency. 

This report is derived from a conference hosted by the Harvard Kennedy School Belfer Center’s Intelligence Project. “Marking the CIA’s 75th Anniversary: Reflections on the Past, Visions of the Future” explored the agency’s history and inflection points that shaped US policy. Five panels examined successes, failures, popular culture, career trajectories, historical perspectives, and looked ahead to anticipate new requirements over the next 75 years. Participants reflected upon origins and evolution, specifically how the agency adapted to meet new challenges, and whether the organization has remained consistent with the original mission. Participants commented on accurate or misleading depictions in popular culture, agency relevance to US decision-making, how careers evolved alongside security environments, and efforts to strengthen trust between the intelligence community and public through increasingly transparent engagement. In sum, the CIA’s 75th Anniversary Conference at Harvard reflected on the agency’s past while yielding important lessons for the next generation. 

Director of the Intelligence Project Paul Kolbe presenting opening remarks.

Director of the Intelligence Project Paul Kolbe presenting opening remarks.

Panel 1: CIA’s Inflection Points: The Successes and Failures that Shaped U.S. Policy 

Moderator: David Sanger, National Security Correspondent, The New York Times 

Panelists: Nicholas Dujmovic, Clinical Professor of Intelligence, Catholic University of America, Former Staff Historian, CIA; Michael Warner, Historian for the U.S. Cyber Command, Former Historian, CIA; Sara Castro, Assistant Professor of History, United States Air Force Academy 

Former CIA historian, Nicholas Dujmovic, stated how CIA successes are often hidden from the public, while its failures are publicized widely. Part of the reason is due to the nature of intelligence work, as there are successes that are hidden to protect sources and methods. Dujmovic also pointed to the role of author bias in downplaying CIA success. Sara Castro, Assistant Professor of History at the US Air Force Academy, agreed, and stated that “if analysts are really doing their job” by getting policymakers to understand how their adversaries think, then those policymakers will take preventive actions, so an event does not happen, which is the “success.” 

US Cyber Command Historian, Michael Warner, highlighted three inflection points in the CIA’s history that shaped US policy: the signing of the National Security Act in 1947, the 1991 Persian Gulf War, and the 2004 creation of the ODNI. Warner noted how the need to coordinate operations abroad and evaluate intelligence for the president led to the National Security Act of 1947, which created the CIA. However, the National Security Act did not contain any provisions regarding the provision of intelligence to support military operations and put the CIA in charge of managing the national intelligence system. The 1991 Persian Gulf War saw the CIA using technology to support military operations in real-time, while the 9/11 and Iraq WMD program intelligence failures resulted in the creation of the in 2004. This took the burden of coordinating the American intelligence community away from CIA, as the leadership of both agency and wider IC was in a single person. Going forward there was no longer a Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) but only the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (D/CIA). 

Castro added that the need for independent intelligence analysis, separate from the military, also led to the creation of the CIA as an independent civilian agency. Castro further highlighted three inflection points in analytical history that had a consequential impact on or within CIA: the 1952 formation of the National Security Agency (NSA), the 1974 Huhges-Ryan Amendment, and the ‘perfect analytic storm’ in August 6, 2001. With the formation of the NSA in 1952, the CIA began investing in technical intelligence, such as the CORONA satellite and the U-2 programs and led to the CIA becoming an ‘all-source analysis’ agency. The birth of the Cold War limited human intelligence (HUMINT) asset recruitment, which prompted investment in technical intelligence. This investment in technical intelligence led to an expansion of the workforce, as ‘technical’ analysts began to work at CIA alongside all-source analysts. Castro argued that the 1974 Hughs-Ryan Amendment, which limited covert action, led to an improvement in collection and analysis, as covert action “sucked up a lot of oxygen” at CIA and would interfere with collection. Castro described the Presidential Daily Brief (PDB) from August 6, 2001 as a ‘perfect analytic storm.’ By 2001, CIA analysis had evolved to focus on state targets, leading to an ‘identity crisis.’  

Director of the Intelligence Project Paul Kolbe introducing David Sanger, Nicholas Dujmovic, Michael Warner, and Sara Castro as the speakers of the panel "CIA's Inflection Points."

Director of the Intelligence Project Paul Kolbe introducing David SangerNicholas DujmovicMichael Warner, and Sara Castro as the speakers of the panel "CIA's Inflection Points."

Panel 2: Espionage and Entertainment: CIA in Popular Culture 

Moderator:Paul Kolbe, Director, Intelligence Project. 

Panelists:John Sipher, Founder of Spycraft Entertainment, Former Officer, CIA, Senior Intelligence Service; Alex Finley, Author, Former Officer, CIA Directorate of Operations 

How the CIA is depicted in popular culture affects public perception of the agency. Hollywood movies depict assassinations and car chases, but “stories in espionage are about are the human factor, about betrayal, trust, about flawed individuals in pressure packed situations, things like that — character-based stories,” according to John Sipher, former CIA officer and co-owner of “Spycraft Entertainment.” However, while no single film provides a completely accurate depiction of the CIA operations, films tend to get certain pieces right.  

But Alex Finley, former CIA officer and author of a satirical book series about the CIA and the War on Terror, also noted how fiction can “highlight a lot of realities” about what the CIA does, referring to her own works of satire. Sipher and Finely agree that a fictionalized portrayal of the intimacies and subtleties of the relationship between a recruiter and asset can tell the public more about what the CIA does. Sipher noted that the need to protect sources, methods, and secrets usually precludes telling CIA stories through documentaries.

Alex Finley, John Sipher, and Paul Kolbe speaking on the panel "Espionage and Entertainment."

Alex Finley, John Sipher, and Paul Kolbe speaking on the panel “Espionage and Entertainment.”

Panel 3: Then and Now: Former CIA Officers Reflect on the Trajectories of the Agency and their Careers 

Moderator:Michael Miner, Harvard Lecturer and Associate Fellow, Intelligence Project. 

Panelists: The Honorable Susan M. Gordon, Former Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence, Senior Fellow, Intelligence Project; Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, Senior Fellow, Belfer Center, Former Director, Intelligence Project. 

The world impacts national-security decision-making. Global events have an outsized role in shaping policymaker views and priorities, which in turn set agency intelligence requirements. While the agency prepares for unanticipated events to the greatest extent possible, the organization has become incredibly good at adapting to crisis in response. As the world changes faster than the CIA is generally prepared for, according to Belfer Center Senior Fellow and former CIA officer Rolf Mowatt-Larsson, this challenges policymakers and intelligence officers alike to better anticipate the future. 

During the Cold War, the CIA became accustomed to dealing with state actors, primarily the USSR, that held information in discreet places and had a narrow set of customers, according to Sue Gordon, former Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence. After the dissolution of the USSR, the CIA struggled to adapt to a world with state actors that were very different from the USSR. The 1990s were a time of profound change in the security environment. The subsequent post-9/11 era tragically reminded policymakers and intelligence officers alike of the need to share information at a faster pace with a wider set of consumers. Not necessarily in the same vertical structure as the more traditional producer consumer model, but horizontally through deeper intelligence integration across the community. Finally, the CIA continues to wrestle with adapting to the digital world. The impact of technology on geopolitics, or dealing with multidimensional economic issues in addition to classical political or military challenges, force practitioners to push the pace of adaptation faster than ever. 

The early CIA workforce was dominated by white males from similar backgrounds. Gordon noted that while the workforce lacked diversity, women and minorities nonetheless increasingly held “small but important roles.” Gordon credited the CIA’s culture of promoting excellence with improving diversity, as “excellence doesn’t have one look.” Mowatt-Larssen commented that the early CIA’s workforce was much smaller, but the need for expertise to deal with the world’s increasing complexity led to an expansion of the workforce. Mowatt-Larssen also highlighted the importance of listening to junior officers’ new ideas. Gordon agreed but noted the CIA’s cultural hesitance to embrace new generations has been a barrier in the past. Fortunately, the next generation has continued to charge ahead. 

Panel 4: Pulling Back the Secret Curtain: Historical Perspectives 

Moderators:Calder Walton, Director of Research, Intelligence Project; Maria Robson-Morrow, Manager, Intelligence Project. 

Panelists: Nicholas Reynolds, Author, Former Historian, CIA Museum; Nathalia Holt, Author 

Former CIA historian, Nicholas Reynolds, author of Need to Know: World War II and the rise of American Intelligence (2022) traced the evolution of the US intelligence industry from 1940, when it was virtually non-existent, to 1945, when the US developed a vast intelligence apparatus. Reynolds highlighted how good leadership, the role of “Wall St. lawyers,” and collaboration with the British, led to the development of the US intelligence community. Nathalia Holt, author of Wise Gals: The Spies Who Built the CIA and Changed the Future of Espionage, described the impact of women in shaping CIA post-WWII history. She highlighted the contributions of the ‘Wise Gals’, a group of women hired by former OSS director William Donovan, to the CIA post-WWII. Although the Wise Gals made important contributions, they were often overlooked. However, the ‘Wise Gals’ paved the way for future women at the CIA, leading to the establishment of the ‘Petticoat Panel’ in 1953, which revealed the extent of women’s contributions to the agency. 

Panelists Nathalia Holt and Nicholas Reynolds discussing intelligence history on panel "Pulling Back the Secret Curtain."

Panelists Nathalia Holt and Nicholas Reynolds discussing intelligence history on panel “Pulling Back the Secret Curtain.”

Panel 5: The Past as Prologue: Looking Ahead 

Speakers:Michael Morell, Former Deputy Director, Former Acting Director, CIA; Graham Allison, Douglas Dillon Professor of Government, Founding Dean, Harvard Kennedy School, Former Director, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. 

Although the CIA continues to adapt to a changing world and threat environment, its fundamental mission of reducing uncertainty for policymakers through collection and analysis remains the same. Former CIA Deputy Director, Michael Morell, noted the importance of talking about the CIA’s failures in addition to its successes. Morell stated that the determinants of CIA successes and failures are “having the best people, having the best leadership, and having the right resources you need to do the job.” 

Morell also highlighted the importance of transparency, which helps the CIA build trust with the American public and do a better job protecting secrets, and the continued relevance of recruiting human sources, even in the era of Big Data and artificial intelligence. He argued that previous perceived intelligence failures could have been resolved by HUMINT, and that technical intelligence enables HUMINT rather than replacing it. 

Morell also noted the difference between strategic and tactical warning. He commented that 9/11 was never a failure of strategic warning. Tactical insight is much harder to do. However, communicating strategic warning to policymakers is harder than communicating tactical warning. Douglas Dillon Professor of Government, Graham Allison, noted that US policymakers’ lack of a sense of history and strategic solipsism can pose major challenges to their reception of strategic warnings. Allison and Morell agreed that providing policymakers with historical context in addition to analysis could improve the communication of strategic warnings. In addition, Morell noted that providing policymakers with the adversary’s perspective could help counteract strategic solipsism. 

Michael Morell, the former Deputy Director and Acting Director of the CIA, and Graham Allison, the Founding Dean of Harvard Kennedy School, speaking on panel "The Past as Prologue."

Michael Morell, the former Deputy Director and Acting Director of the CIA, and Graham Allison, the Founding Dean of Harvard Kennedy School, speaking on panel “The Past as Prologue.”

Key Takeaways 


The CIA’s mission to reduce uncertainty for policymakers through collection and all-source analysis is even more important in a world marked by “information disorder” [Sue Gordon]. The craft of intelligence takes account of uncertainty and provides a structured way of dealing with it. This is the core mission of the CIA, and it must continue as ‘the tip of the spear’ in America’s first line of defense. 


Workforce diversity remains a mission imperative yesterday, today, and tomorrow. This starts with people, who in turn have a positive cascading effect in shaping perspectives, ideas, operations, and views. For a diverse world, the agency must have a diverse workforce. 


Looking at history in a structured way can help the CIA, and other intelligence communities, learn from past mistakes without over-correcting. In addition, providing policymakers with historical context enhances communication of strategic warnings. Clearly written products and tailored oral briefings which provide requisite historical insight empower consumer understanding for better outcomes. 

Secrecy and Transparency 

Although secrecy is important, the agency must “beware the cult of secrecy” [Rolf Mowatt-Larsson]. The CIA must improve transparency to strengthen trust with the American public. Fictionalized accounts of intelligence work that highlight the “human factor” [John Sipher] can help the public learn more about what the CIA does and why it exists in a way that improves transparency and comprehension. 

Open-Source Intelligence 

Although clandestine collection, including the recruitment of human sources, remains critical to the CIA’s work, the agency should not dismiss publicly available information, especially in an era where such information is of increasing importance. The explosion of open access information and private sector capabilities changed the game. Secret intelligence remains highly sought after for reducing uncertainty, and perhaps still the most significant under certain conditions, it must be leveraged in concert with open-source capabilities to provide the greatest advantage for the decision-making process.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Walton, Calder, Nidal Morrison and Michael Miner . “Report: Marking the CIA’s 75th Anniversary: Reflections on the Past, Visions of the Future.” Intelligence Project, December 2022.