Myths About the CIA You Probably Believe


The CIA, which stands for Central Intelligence Agency, is one of the best known and most controversial spy agencies in the world. Their involvement with the Bush administration in regards to so-called enhanced interrogation, extraordinary rendition, and other such offenses, as well as their adventures in South America, have made them infamous. However, they are also one of the most misunderstood. Many people are confused about the limits of the CIA’s authority, and what they are really up to (and have been up to) over the years. In today’s article, we will go over 10 ways people misunderstand the CIA. 

10. The CIA Is Probably Not Watching You 

Many people like to joke about how the CIA likes to watch American citizens, but that is actually the FBI’s job. The FBI has law enforcement authority and has certain jurisdiction when it comes to looking out for possible federal crimes on American soil, by American citizens. However, the CIA isn’t really supposed to be particularly involved with the internal affairs of United States citizens. 

The real charter of the CIA is to collect information overseas, especially about foreign actors or countries that might cause harm. Now, this doesn’t mean there is no way the CIA would ever be listening to you, but if they are, it’s almost certainly because you were talking to someone from another country that they deem a potential threat in some form. So, unless you are talking online to potential terrorists, there is no real reason the CIA would be monitoring your conversations. Now, as we mentioned this doesn’t mean the government isn’t necessarily spying on you, as the FBI, the NSA, or others do have certain jurisdiction within the USA, but it is very unlikely to be the CIA.  

9. You Are Not Required To Learn A Foreign Language To Join Them 

The CIA is often considered to be one of the most elite of the elite, and many people figure that unless you have excellent language skills and can speak at least one second language fluently, you likely don’t have much chance of joining up. Now, if you are going to work in a foreign country you may want to know the local language, but the majority of CIA agents don’t actually need to be bilingual or multilingual. Now, it is a plus and will even net you a cash bonus (and probably better opportunities) if you can show the proper proficiency in one or more foreign languages. 

However, there is no actual need for it to join. There are dozens of positions that don’t require foreign language skills, and those positions need to be filled. On top of that, if you decide after joining that you are interested in a position that requires you to learn a foreign language, the CIA will be happy to teach you using their own systems. They believe with only 1,000 hours, using the right methodology to teach you, you can learn at least a basic fluency in another language. Using these methods, they teach officers to communicate with agents all over the world, allowing the CIA’s reach to extend to every corner of the globe. 

8. The Claim That The CIA Gave Crack To The Black Community Is Probably Nonsense 

Years back before the internet could both spread and debunk nonsense, a popular claim went around the country that the CIA had actually distributed crack to the inner city black communities, and not just as part of an overall plot to make money for revolutionaries in South America, but also specifically to harm the black community. However, there is a lot of reason to believe that the claims about this are complete and total nonsense that have taken hold over the years because there was not enough pushback over the obvious falsehoods at the time. 

All of the claims can be traced back to a “journalist” named Gary Webb, who wrote a story called “Dark Alliance,” which made the insane claims about the CIA. This story claimed it all started in Los Angeles and went from there, even though most experts say that the spread of crack was pretty much simultaneous among most large cities. Furthermore, at the time of Webb’s story, every newspaper of record tore it full of holes and pointed out it had nothing at all to back it up, and plenty that contradicted it. However, because the CIA is so generally distrusted (and/or despised), and many black Americans understandably don’t trust the government, the myth took hold in the popular consciousness, and it would be difficult to change most people’s minds about it at this point in time. 

7. They Are Not A Law Enforcement Agency 

While there have been some reports of extraordinary rendition back during the Bush years, with the help of the CIA, and some have argued this was an extreme abuse of power and of international law, the fact is that especially within the borders of the United States, the CIA has no real law enforcement authority at all. Unlike the FBI, their job is not to make arrests, or enforce the laws of the United States. Most CIA officers, at least within safe areas that they operate in within the US, do not even carry firearms and are rarely expected to find themselves in danger on American soil. 

Now, the FBI does have law enforcement power, and the two share information, so that doesn’t mean the CIA will just let you go. If the CIA somehow comes across information you are breaking the law while researching foreign actors, and bringing the hammer down on you wouldn’t jeopardize their overall investigation or intelligence gathering, they will quickly refer your actions to the appropriate law enforcement agency, who will be more than happy to arrest you and ensure you pay for your crimes — just don’t expect the CIA to do the arresting. 

6. The CIA’s Back And Forth Power To Launch Drone Strikes Against Suspected Terrorists 

Because the CIA is cloaked in secrecy many people speculate often about what they are actually doing in foreign countries, and just how violent they generally get. In certain countries that are more dangerous than others, especially ones with active war zones, you might find CIA agents who practically take on a paramilitary vibe. In that sense, it has become increasingly useful for them to be able to take paramilitary actions of their own, when they deem it necessary, without necessarily taking the time to coordinate fully with the military, the executive branch, or other spy agencies

Now, back during the Bush years, one of their greatest paramilitary powers was the ability to launch drone strikes on suspected terrorist targets. While President Obama certainly enjoyed launching drone strikes himself, he didn’t think that the CIA should have the power to order strikes on their own, and took their toy away from them. However, President Trump has reversed that and once again allowed the CIA to order drone strikes on suspected terrorists, if they think it necessary. 

5. Zero Dark Thirty Makes The CIA Look Really Good, But They Were Behind Its Production

The movie Zero Dark Thirty is a spy drama about the military, and especially the CIA, regarding their efforts to gain intelligence that would lead them to the capture or killing of Osama Bin Laden. In the movie, torture is used and works very well in order to get the information needed. The movie suggests that it was this information that eventually led to the death of America’s number one enemy. The CIA wants you to believe, with the help of their propaganda arm, that torture was truly necessary, and that it works. 

And yes, we say “propaganda arm” because the CIA was heavily involved in the creation of Zero Dark Thirty. They offered the filmmakers all kinds of information to better make their movie, in return for making sure that the CIA looked really, really good. And, there is good reason to believe they are being extremely deceptive. Many experts on intelligence suggest that the CIA’s argument is really specious and that the torture was not what lead us, ultimately, to Bin Laden’s location (and final end). Of course, those who want to believe that torture works are happy to accept the movie’s message, and allow the CIA to remain completely off the hook for those actions. 

4. Like Any Spy Agency, Classified Information Is On A Need To Know Basis 

Many people think that if they join a spy agency, suddenly they will be able to see how far down the rabbit hole things really go. Except, they are almost certainly going to be disappointed if they join the CIA with this mindset. Even if you can reach the highest levels of security clearance, your hopes of learning about UFOs, the Kennedy Assassination, or whatever other burning questions you have, is pretty much nil. The reason for this is that you are very, very unlikely to have any reason to need that information to perform your job and its various duties. 

The reason they’re so careful with classified information is that no matter how trusted someone is, people are fallible, and the more people know, the weaker the secret actually is. What this means is that even if you are the President of the United States, you don’t get to go pawing through all the secret, classified files that have been hidden over the years for various reasons. Even the President has to go through a process to get to certain information, and might find resistance or stonewalling if he is asking for something he doesn’t really need to know. All classified information, no matter what level you are, is strictly on a need to know basis — and even then, only as much as you absolutely need to know. 

3. CIA Officers Can Have All Kinds Of Non-Clandestine Or Even Boring Jobs 

One thing many people think is that the CIA is almost entirely officers running around doing dangerous missions — or maybe some people in offices working frantically to hack our enemies, or prevent hacking from the same. However, most CIA officers are pretty normal people, with pretty normal jobs. For the most part, they might not even run into anything that classified or important the vast majority of the time. The CIA needs people to run just about every function you could imagine, from janitorial to HR and everything in between. Those people might spice up their lives by joking about how they would have to kill you if they tell you what they did, but their job might actually be kind of boring. 

Naturally, this doesn’t mean there is no excitement to it at all. Just knowing you are working for such an important agency is likely a certain rush on its own, and employees probably deal with crucial information or people at least now and then. However, the main point is that the majority of CIA jobs don’t require you to put yourself in any particular danger. So, for those who are interested in joining the CIA in order to better protect their country, but don’t particularly want a dangerous job, they need not worry — there are plenty of non-violent or crazy and intense options to choose from. 

2. The CIA Has Toppled Governments and They Are Dangerous Rogues 

Many people (including us) like to talk about the CIA’s adventurism in South America and other parts of the world, and how they have destabilized governments, helped along coups and revolutions, and worked to install puppet leaders around the world in support of the United States government. Some of this has had bad results that has left regions in a state of instability decades later, and many blame the CIA almost entirely for these problems — especially the rise of the drug trade and the lack of stability in South America. 

However, while the CIA may have been involved in a lot of this, that doesn’t mean they are a rogue agency, or that “the CIA did it.” To say the CIA did it is like saying a gun shot someone. In a certain sense it is true, the gun was fired and it sent out the bullet, but someone else was holding it and pulled the trigger. The CIA does not have unilateral authority to set policy, or destabilize countries and the like. The CIA answers to the government, and takes their marching orders directly from them. Just like you wouldn’t blame the army itself for a country being invaded by our government, the instability caused by the CIA was done by the government itself, the CIA was just their chosen tool for the job. 

1. CIA Officers Get Information In A Way Most People Won’t Imagine 

You might imagine CIA officers as the sneakiest and most in danger of the clandestine spies. They go to foreign countries, blend in, get jobs, and use their language and culture skills to work their way up and steal foreign secrets. However, while CIA officers are often in danger in other countries, and can risk being identified, and sometimes do take on a paramilitary or more spy-like aspect, the truth is a lot more banal, because we want to minimize the risk to our CIA officers. 

The most important training a CIA officer (who is a field officer) can have, and that which they will likely use the most, is training agents. Agents are essentially what we imagine most CIA operatives to already be — the true spies. Agents are recruited from the foreign country of origin, and usually already have positions that get them close to important information. The CIA officers groom and train these agents, turning them into assets that help the USA learn valuable information about their enemies — and even allies — abroad. This doesn’t mean CIA officers don’t sometimes go into very dangerous situations, and as we said getting their cover blown can still be dangerous, but this use of foreign agents to do the most risky work helps keep our people alive and collecting more and more important information from around the globe.

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