The CIA and Congress

The Untold Story from Truman to Kennedy

David M. Barrett

Winner: D.B. Hardeman Prize

From its inception more than half a century ago and for decades afterward, the Central Intelligence Agency was deeply shrouded in secrecy, with little or no real oversight by Congress—or so many Americans believe. David M. Barrett reveals, however, that during the agencys first fifteen years, Congress often monitored the CIAs actions and plans, sometimes aggressively.

“Barrett’s study is both fascinating and provocative, and it is unquestionably one of the most important books ever published on the early history of the CIA. . . . I sincerely hope that this book finds an audience outside of academic circles. Members of the intelligence committees in the House and Senate would benefit from reading this cautionary tale of what can go wrong when leaders fail to ask tough questions and demand openness.

—H-Net Reviews

“A significant contribution to the history of the Cold War; to the cause of scholarly access to vital material; and to the current debate on intelligence, executive power, and democratic values.


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Drawing on a wealth of newly declassified documents, research at some two dozen archives, and interviews with former officials, Barrett provides an unprecedented and often colorful account of relations between American spymasters and Capitol Hill. He chronicles the CIAs dealings with senior legislators who were haunted by memories of our intelligence failure at Pearl Harbor and yet riddled with fears that such an organization might morph into an American Gestapo. He focuses in particular on the efforts of Congress to monitor, finance, and control the agencys activities from the creation of the national security state in 1947 through the planning for the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961.

Along the way, Barrett highlights how Congress criticized the agency for failing to predict the first Soviet atomic test, the startling appearance of Sputnik over American air space, and the overthrow of Iraqs pro-American government in 1958. He also explores how Congress viewed the CIAs handling of Senator McCarthys charges of communist infiltration, the crisis created by the downing of a U-2 spy plane, and President Eisenhowers complaint that Congress meddled too much in CIA matters. Ironically, as Barrett shows, Congress itself often pushed the agency to expand its covert operations against other nations.

The CIA and Congress provides a much-needed historical perspective for current debates in Congress and beyond concerning the agencys recent failures and ultimate fate. In our post-9/11 era, it shows that anxieties over the challenges to democracy posed by our intelligence communities have been with us from the very beginning.

About the Author

David M. Barrett is professor of political science at Villanova University and author of Lyndon B. Johnson’s Vietnam Papers and Uncertain Warriors: Lyndon Johnson and His Vietnam Advisers.

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