Eugene S. Poteat – The Ever-Changing Role of the CIA: From OSS Covert Operations, to Analysis, to High-Tech and Back

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Event Date: 29 April – 1 May 2011
East Midlands Conference Centre
University of Nottingham  
University Park
Nottingham NG7 2RJ



Landscapes of Secrecy: The CIA in History, Fiction and Memory


Eugene S. Poteat (AFIO) – The Ever-Changing Role of the CIA: From OSS Covert Operations, to Analysis, to High-Tech and Back

American Intelligence methods have evolved over the past 63 years, responding to changing national security needs. Four phases can be identified, each designed for the demands of the time, and overlapping. The first phase began in 1947 with an extension of the wartime paramilitary efforts of the OSS. The main threat at that time was the Communist subversion of Italy, Greece, Turkey, and Latin America. The newly-formed CIA was tasked with countering these efforts, and through covert action, and ample funding, managed to have considerable success in these countries. The operations officers enjoyed substantial tactical autonomy, and with minimum political supervision. This deficit of political oversight led to some overconfidence and over-reaching, and ended with a few missteps, the largest being the disastrous Bay of Pigs fiasco in 1961, in Cuba. Covert action was, for a time, discredited and eclipsed.

The second phase ushered in the era of growing confidence in what was termed Analysis. This school of thought, championed by Sherman Kent, sought to deduce and inform policymakers through the means of scholarly and massive accumulation of all manner of factual details – overt and covert – for every country or area of possible interest. The pipe-smoking professor was the new model officer. This was a necessary effort, but proved insufficient because of a neglect of human resources on the ground in areas of concern. And this approach failed to answer the most critical intelligence question of the time, the “bomber and missile gap,” since we had no assets in the Soviet Union, and little accurate data emanated from the USSR on its own. This was the era of desk-bound intelligence collection, and came to be discredited and eclipsed.

The third phase worked to correct this deficit by scientific advances and development of technologies designed to synergize with human collection of Soviet policies and capability. Eisenhower, with the advice of prominent scientists, quickly established and promoted this effort. Early examples were the U-2 reconnaissance planes and the Corona satellite program. These were quite helpful in the Berlin and Cuban Missile crises. The height of the effort was the “Star Wars” missile defense program, instituted by Ronald Reagan.

The current fourth phase may be said to have started with the challenges of global Islamic terrorism, which began shortly before 1997 but shot to the top of the pile after September 2001. This required an integration of HUMINT, high-tech weapons such as the Predator, and Special Forces military intelligence on the ground, and analysis, in and from target areas.

Eugene S. Poteat is a retired senior intelligence officer. He was awarded the CIA’s Intelligence Medal of Merit and the National Reconnaissance Office Meritorious Civilian Award. He is President of AFIO – the Association For Intelligence Officers and is on the Board of Advisors of the International Spy Museum. He graduated from The Citadel (military college) with a B.S. in Electrical Engineering in 1957, and holds a Master’s degree in Statecraft and National Security Affairs with a specialization in Intelligence Studies from the Institute of World Politics in Washington, D.C. His long career in scientific intelligence included work with U-2 and SR-71 class of aircraft and various space and naval reconnaissance systems. He also managed the CIA’s worldwide network of monitoring sites. His CIA assignments included the Directorate of Science and Technology, the National Reconnaissance Office, Technical Director of the Navy’s Special Programs Office and Executive Director of the Intelligence Research and Development Council. He served abroad in London, Scandinavia, the Middle East and Asia.

Email: g2poteat@gmail.com

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