CIA, Legal Restriction

CIA, Legal Restriction

James Angleton, former chief of Counterintelligence at the Central Intelligence Agency, answers questions before the Senate Intelligence Committee in 1975 regarding the CIA practice of opening mail of targeted Americans. Proceedings from the committee resulted in tighter controls concerning CIA covert actions. AP/WIDE WORLD PHOTOS.
James Angleton, former chief of Counterintelligence at the Central Intelligence Agency, answers questions before the Senate Intelligence Committee in 1975 regarding the CIA practice of opening mail of targeted Americans. Proceedings from the committee resulted in tighter controls concerning CIA covert actions.


Although created by legislation in 1947, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operated largely free of legal restrictions for about a quarter-century. This all changed in the early 1970s, when CIA involvement in the Watergate break-in led to investigations in Congress. Simultaneous with this was a series of revelations in the media concerning CIA covert operations in the past, which only further influenced a widespread opinion that the agency had operated for too long without benefit of legal oversight. The result was the formation of House and Senate intelligence committees, as well as other restrictions that have served—with varying degrees of success—to put the agency under legal restraint.

Excesses and reactions. The National Security Act, passed by Congress in 1947, formally established the CIA, even though a presidential directive signed by President Harry S. Truman in January 1946 had established a forerunner, the Central Intelligence Group. The Central Intelligence Agency Act of 1949, rather than limiting the powers of the agency, gave it a virtual blank check: CIA budgets, salaries, and even job titles would be secret; contracts could be awarded without bidding; and the CIA could grant permanent residency to aliens—particularly defectors from the Soviet bloc—and their families.

During the height of the Cold War, the CIA operated with a greater degree of operational freedom. Only in the 1970s, as the Cold War entered a new phase of detente, and as the American public became increasingly suspicious of their government, did the agency come under increased scrutiny and hence, legal restriction. More than even the Vietnam War, the single greatest factor in spawning this distrust was the 1972 Watergate break-in, in which CIA personnel were involved. Watergate, which would lead to the downfall of the Nixon administration, started the CIA on a spiral of diminishing public confidence that would lead to the imposition of greater legal restrictions on the agency.

Just as Washington Post journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein broke the Watergate story, Seymour Hersh of the New York Times started a barrage of investigative reports directed at the CIA when in December, 1974 he uncovered evidence of a lengthy domestic intelligence campaign involving interception of private mail. In the years that followed, the public would learn that the agency had been involved in assassinations and attempted assassinations, conducted experiments using LSD and other psychotropic drugs, and lied to the public concerning the development of secret spy planes.

New committees and executive orders. In response to the growing public distrust of the CIA, President Gerald R. Ford on January 4, 1975, signed Executive Order 11828, which created the Commission on CIA Activities, to be chaired by Vice President Nelson Rockefeller. On January 27, the Senate established its Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, under the leadership of Frank Church (D-ID). The House of Representatives created its own Select Committee on Intelligence, later chaired by Otis G. Pike (D-NY), on February 19.

The Church Committee submitted its final report on April 26, 1976. Meanwhile, on January 29, just two days before the Pike Committee was to complete its investigation, the House voted not to make its findings public. (The report was eventually leaked to journalist Daniel Schorr, and published in the Village Voice. ) The Church Committee had already begun to have an impact, and as of May 19, the Senate had put in place its permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. On July 14, 1977, the House established its own such committee.

Ford signed Executive Order 11905, "United States Foreign Intelligence Activities," on February 18, 1976. The order established the Committee on Foreign Intelligence and the Operations Advisory Group, which greatly increased executive oversight of the CIA. The National Security Council (NSC), established at the same time as the CIA, also afforded this oversight, but in the NSC, the Director of Central Intelligence primarily acted in the capacity of an intelligence advisor, whereas the new committees extended the President's involvement in CIA budget planning and resource allocation.

President James E. Carter, on January 24, 1978, signed Executive Order 12036, which changed the shape of the intelligence structure. Among its provisions was a restriction of bugging and domestic surveillance activities, and guidelines whereby the CIA could request surveillance authorization through the Federal Bureau of Investigation. This order was superseded on December 4, 1981, by Executive Order 12333, in which President Ronald Reagan further clarified legal oversight of the intelligence community.

Laws in the early 1980s. The effort to bring the CIA into line continued with a series of congressional acts in the early 1980s, including the 1980 Intelligence Oversight Act. The act replaced the armed services committees as the principal arm of legislative oversight for the CIA in both houses of Congress. Thenceforth, the newly formed intelligence committees would take the lead, though the armed services committees remain involved in monitoring intelligence activities, as did the foreign relations and foreign affairs committees. At its end, the CIA maintains an Office of Congressional Affairs, and provides more than a thousand briefings to Congress, its committees, and their staffs, each year.

In an effort to prevent the pendulum from swinging too far in the opposite direction, Congress passed the Intelligence Identities Protection Act. The act, which Reagan signed into law on June 23, 1982, made it a felony to reveal the names of covert intelligence personnel. On October 15, 1984, Reagan signed the Central Intelligence Agency Information Act, which exempted the agency from the search and review requirements of the Freedom of Information Act. (The latter, passed in 1967 and amended in 1975, had further increased U.S. citizens' protection against domestic intelligence operations by the CIA and other groups.)

Striking a balance. All issues of legal authority over the CIA were not solved in the period from the mid-1970s to the early 1980s, however. Still ahead lay the Iran-Contra debacle, which did not so much lead to new legislation as it further eroded the trust of lawmakers and the public toward the CIA. As a result, by the early 1990s, the U.S. intelligence community found itself so restricted that it could hardly conduct its operations. This fact hit home after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, when it became apparent that a lack of human intelligence had contributed to the government's failure to foresee the attacks. However, the post-September, 2001 emphasis on security portended a relaxation of restrictions on CIA activity.



Legislative Oversight of Intelligence Activities: The U.S. Experience: Report. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1994.

Polmar, Norman, and Thomas B. Allen. Spy Book: The Encyclopedia of Espionage. New York: Random House, 1998.

Richelson, Jeffrey T. The U.S. Intelligence Community, fourth edition. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1999.


Cannon, Carl M. "Central Intelligence Agency." National Journal 33, no. 25 (June 23, 2001): 1903–1904.


CIA (United States Central Intelligence Agency)
CIA, Formation and History
FOIA (Freedom of Information Act)
HUMINT (Human Intelligence)
Intelligence, United States Congressional Oversight of
Intelligence Authorization Acts, United States Congress

NSC (National Security Council)
PFIAB (President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board)
President of the United States (Executive Command and Control of Intelligence Agencies)

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