How intelligent is Central Intelligence Agency? CIA’s spotty record of 75 years


The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) of the US, created in 1947, has completed 75 years, with several notable achievements and some terrible failures that earned it bouquets of ridicule. 

The agency’s emblem sets out the paradigms it aims to follow: the eagle representing alertness and strength, and the 16-point compass star for the convergence of intelligence data from around the world, but quite a few of its bloopers exposed how it floundered in abiding with the precepts.  

The agency prospered during the Cold War so much that its actions often proved to be scandalous as it appropriated unbridled power and had no accountability due to the nature of its operations. Some of its blunders would leave readers bemused today for the sheer idiosyncrasies and frivolity of ideas, and had even then resulted in raucous criticism. 

CIA has worked in enabling regime changes, assassinations and coups, from Latin America to Africa to the Middle East to Southeast Asia.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky had said, “It takes something more than intelligence to act intelligently,” and the Central ‘Intelligence’ Agency seems to have taken it rather too seriously.


The most ridiculous of all CIA operations turned out to be the bizarre methods it repeatedly kept devising to snuff out the Cuban leader Fidel Castro, his brother Raul and Ernesto Che Guevara. 

It is said that the CIA made 638 attempts to kill Castro, but failed every time and its ludicrous strategies became a laughing point. So much so that even Castro cracked a joke once on being offered a Galápagos turtle as a present and politely declined it on learning that it was likely to live only 100 years. “That’s the problem with pets. You get attached to them and then they die on you,” he famously said. 

Its outlandish plots to kill Castro included exploding cigars, poisoned pens and booby-trapped seashells among others. 

The assassination attempts, from 1959 to 2001, transcended eight presidencies, starting from the Dwight D. Eisenhower administration to Bill Clinton’s, but CIA’s ‘try and try, until you succeed’ dictum never paid off.  

A 1967 report revealed that since Castro was fond of cigars, CIA came up with the idea of lacing one with explosives so that it would blow his face off after a few puffs, and then another of spiking it with botulinum, a toxin that attacks nerves, causes respiratory distress, muscle paralysis and leads to death. It recruited a double agent, gave him a box of Castro’s favourite cigars laced with the toxin, but it never worked, as it was conjectured that he had a tobacco-taster who took the first few drags to ensure his safety. And then Castro quit smoking! 

Castro, also a keen scuba diver, loved to pick colourful seashells, which gave CIA brains the idea to place brightly painted seashells rigged with explosives at his favourite diving spots and wait for him to pick the molluscs and be doomed with a boom underwater. Even this didn’t work out, so then they devised a custom-made diving-suit infected with a deadly fungus.  

When the indefatigable CIA learnt that Castro was an ice cream lover, it hatched a plan to place poison pills in his cone through a worker at his pet joint. The vial containing the poison was hidden in the freezer, but at the crucial moment, it could not be dislodged — it was frozen stuck! 

The CIA roped in Castro’s former lover as a hitwoman and gave her poison pills, which she hid in her cold-cream jar, but they melted as did the chances of forcing them into Castro’s mouth while he slept. 

Castro noticed her unusual behaviour and questioned her, and she admitted to the bid on his life. He allegedly handed her his pistol to finish the job, but she could not and they ended up making love —another CIA plot ending on a gratifying note for its bête noire. 

Another CIA conspiracy was to use a superfine poisoned hypodermic needle concealed in a pen and the victim would not even notice the prick, but the Cuban official roped in for the job did not think much of the device and said the CIA should come up with something more sophisticated. 

At times it seemed the CIA was more interested in bumping off the Cuban leader than protecting their own: the man given the pen-syringe was dispatched on his ‘mission’ on Nov. 22, 1963, the very day John F. Kennedy was assassinated.  

Even American underworld figures from the mafia – still smarting at being kicked out of Cuba by Castro – were approached to carry out a hit. One would-be sniper was caught by security men at the University of Havana and a grenade attack at a baseball game was also foiled.  

In 2000, about 90kg of high explosives were placed under the podium where Castro was due to speak during his visit to Panama, but his personal security team found it during checking. 

The CIA also came up with non-fatal plans to discredit Castro by spraying an LSD aerosol near him during a broadcast which would lead to national humiliation as he freaked out on air. Then it planned to dust Castro’s shoes with thallium salts which would make his beard fall out while delivering a speech abroad. The trip was cancelled, and even this opportunity was lost. 

The infamous Bay of Pigs invasion, in which the CIA trained, armed and funded 1400 exiled Cubans to attack Castro did not last days and John F Kennedy had to stop all air support and concede the embarrassing loss. 

Castro, who is said to have used doubles and moved around the country constantly, survived all the assassination attempts, without even getting a scratch, and died of natural causes in 2016, at the ripe age of 90, finally giving respite to CIA. 


Yet another colossal failure was on May 11, 1998, when under Operation Shakti, India detonated five underground atomic bombs and CIA was caught sleeping and stunned by how it was outsmarted by a third world nation.  

India walked into the nuclear club with swag and the alert ‘eagle’ didn’t have a clue despite the billion-dollar satellites up in sky keeping a watch and much-bragged-about human intelligence. 
Relying on plain common sense, the Indian scientists only worked during the nights to evade the satellite detections, used camouflage to perfection, besides code words like White House for underground shafts.  

“It is apparent that the Indians went to some lengths to conceal their activities and intentions,” the ruffled CIA said later to explain the failure.  


During early Cold War, the CIA came to conclusion that Communists had discovered a drug or technique that allowed them to control human minds, and it began its own secret programme, called MK-ULTRA, the details of which read like a dystopian science fiction novel as it searched for mind control drugs and ways. 

It drugged US and Canadian citizens with LSD and other psychoactive chemicals without their consent and subjected some to psychological torture ranging from electroshock to high doses of LSD. 
The illegal, unethical and dangerous programme ran from 1953 to 1964 and in 1973 CIA director ordered all related files to be destroyed. 


The 9/11 attack is deemed the biggest failure of US intel agencies. The CIA failed to add to the ‘watch list’ two suspected al-Qaeda militants Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar it had been tracking since they attended a terrorist meeting in Malaysia on January 5, 2000. The error enabled them to enter US under their real names, rent apartment under real names, obtain driver’s licences, open bank accounts, purchase a car, and take flight lessons at a local school. 

The commission appointed to probe the September 11 attacks revealed several glaring oversights and lapses in its report, including by the CIA. 


The CIA’s hacking team had started making cutting-edge cyber weapons to steal secrets from foreign governments but failed to monitor who had access to its information. 

Former Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning, who stole data from the Pentagon and State Department, and the former contractor Edward Snowden, who took information from the National Security Agency, exposed the secrets.  

In March 2017, WikiLeaks published some of the CIA’s most valuable hacking tools, which it called Vault 7, revealing how the agency could break into foreign computer networks, or activate the camera or microphone on devices to eavesdrop on adversaries. 

The rattled CIA then plotted to kill or kidnap WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange while he was holed up in the Ecuadorean embassy in London, but has not succeeded so far. 


The information of a stock of “weapons of mass destruction” in the possession of Saddam Hussein’s regime collected by CIA was used by the Bush administration to justify the invasion of Iraq. The intel inputs were subsequently found baseless and critics condemned it as ‘politicisation’ of intelligence.  


In 1990, US intel agencies were aware that Saddam Hussein was making unusual movements of armoured forces in his country, but didn’t know and did nothing till he invaded Kuwait.  

In 2003, CIA kidnapped Khaled El-Masri, a German and Lebanese citizen, mistaking him for a dreaded terrorist with the same name. He was flown to Afghanistan, where he was routinely interrogated, beaten, strip-searched, sodomised, and subjected to other cruel forms of inhumane treatment and torture. It took the smart detectives of the premier agency full four months to draw the conclusion that they had in fact picked up the wrong man. The CIA finally admitted his arrest was a mistake and released him. So much luck to the agency for bringing smiles on our faces, even as we wish it continues its stupendous endeavours, aborts terror attacks in time and saves lives as it has been scrupulously doing over the years.

(Disclaimer: The views of the writer do not represent the views of WION or ZMCL. Nor does WION or ZMCL endorse the views of the writer.)


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