The President Who Set up the CIA Warned About Its Power Years Later

March 8, 2017 Updated: June 11, 2019

President Harry Truman sometimes gets a bad rap for establishing the Central Intelligence Agency, or CIA, 69 years ago—he himself made comments decades ago that seem more pertinent than ever today.

After WikiLeaks released a trove of alleged CIA documents on Tuesday that describe hacking tools and techniques used by the intelligence agency, some said it has gone too far. The documents indicate the CIA can hack iPhones, Android phones, routers, so-called smart TVs, and Windows, Linux, and Mac computers. High-profile NSA leaker Edward Snowden said the leak “is genuinely a big deal” and that it “looks authentic.”

Truman, a Democrat, didn’t predict the CIA would be able to spy on Americans through their TVs, but he did issue a series of warnings about possible overreach. “I think it has become necessary to take another look at the purpose and operations of our Central Intelligence Agency,” he wrote in 1963 for the Washington Post.

“For some time I have been disturbed by the way CIA has been diverted from its original assignment. It has become an operational and at times a policy-making arm of the Government. This has led to trouble and may have compounded our difficulties in several explosive areas,” Truman wrote in the piece.

He set up the agency in 1947 when the National Security Act was signed into law, but, in no uncertain terms, indicated that by the early 1960s, it had turned to carrying out “peacetime cloak and dagger operations.”

In this March 3, 2005 file photo, a workman literally cleans house at the Central Intelligence Agency headquarters in Langley, Va. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
In this March 3, 2005 file photo, a workman literally cleans house at the Central Intelligence Agency headquarters in Langley, Va. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

By then, the CIA already had a bad reputation in other foreign countries for spying and spreading disinformation, Truman added.

“With all the nonsense put out by Communist propaganda about ‘Yankee imperialism,’ ‘exploitive capitalism,’ ‘war-mongering,’ ‘monopolists,’ in their name-calling assault on the West, the last thing we needed was for the CIA to be seized upon as something akin to a subverting influence in the affairs of other people,” he continued.

While speaking to a biographer, Truman—who was flat broke when he left office and lived with his mother-in-law in Missouri for a time—expressed regret for having set up the CIA.

“I think it was a mistake. And if I’d known what was going to happen, I never would have done it,” he said.

In his words, the CIA was set up at a time when the U.S. president needed a centralized organization to bring in various intelligence reports. At the time, there were about a dozen agencies sending the president intelligence.

It spiraled out of control during the next administration, Truman asserted.

“Now, as nearly as I can make out, those fellows in the CIA don’t just report on wars and the like, they go out and make their own, and there’s nobody to keep track of what they’re up to. They spend billions of dollars on stirring up trouble so they’ll have something to report on. They’ve become … it’s become a government all of its own and all secret. They don’t have to account to anybody,” he said.

“That’s a very dangerous thing in a democratic society, and it’s got to be put a stop to. The people have got a right to know what those birds are up to. And if I was back in the White House, people would know. You see, the way a free government works, there’s got to be a housecleaning every now and again, and I don’t care what branch of the government is involved. Somebody has to keep an eye on things.”

In 1971, Truman again asserted that the CIA is a necessity for U.S. national security and consolidating intelligence.

“So instead of the President having to look through a bunch of papers two feet high, the information was coordinated so that the President could arrive at the facts. It’s still going, and it’s going very well,” he said. However, he didn’t elaborate more on those claims.