WASHINGTON - On one side of the ledger are assassination plots, LSD experiments, botched invasions, overlooked moles. On the other are America's victory in the Cold War and the detection of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba.
As the Central Intelligence Agency approaches its 50th birthday tomorrow, former CIA and KGB chiefs, undercover spies and some of the CIA's many critics portray the spy agency as both a credit and an embarrassment to the nation.
These observers regard the CIA as the main pillar of the U.S. effort to contain the Soviet Union. Albeit with some high-profile failures, they say, the agency kept a succession of presidents informed.
"The CIA during the Cold War was considered the blue chip in a deadly poker game," said William Bader, who was on the staff of the Church Committee, headed by Sen. Frank Church, which issued a highly critical report on the CIA in 1976.
Perhaps the most flattering testimony comes from the CIA's former archenemy, the Soviet KGB.
"The CIA stopped communism in Western Europe in the early 1940s and '50s," said Maj. Gen. Oleg Kalugin, former head of KGB counterintelligence. Despite such high-profile disasters as the Aldrich Ames spy case, "the score, if you compare, is heavily in favor of the United States."
Triumphs of technology
The CIA developed the U-2 spy plane and later led the nation in space technology, successfully making the first recovery of an object sent into space - a film canister - and ushering in the era of spy satellites. CIA cameras enabled weapons analysts to count rivets on the wings of Soviet warplanes. And CIA eavesdropping technology gave the U.S. a secret seat at the table in many foreign governments.
"They found ways to get access to information out of this most secret country ... that boggled the mind," said former CIA Director Robert Gates. "They've never gotten any credit for that."
Much of the CIA's dark public image must be ascribed to the all-too-public exposure cast on many of the agency's clandestine operations.
The failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961 heads the roster of debacles. In Vietnam, the CIA's Operation Phoenix claimed tens of thousands of lives in an effort to root out Communist leaders in South Vietnam. The Church Committee investigation of 1975-76 exposed CIA assassination plots, including the hiring of Mafia hit men in a failed bid to kill Fidel Castro, as well as CIA surveillance of U.S. citizens.
Fault lies with presidents?
Former CIA Director Richard Helms and CIA critic Steve Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists agree on one thing: The blame for many excesses may lie with presidents who ordered them.
"It is clear that the option of projecting power secretly has repeatedly proven to be an irresistible temptation," Aftergood said, "and it has implicated the United States in a series of atrocious human-rights violations."
This reputation for dirty business has been hard to shake. Thus, with little if any supporting evidence, many Americans found it easy to believe that the CIA was involved in the assassination of President Kennedy or responsible for the spread of crack cocaine through inner cities.
What the CIA is doing now
The reforms of the mid-1970s gave Congress the power to oversee covert operations, including those going on today.
"Virtually none of them have leaked," says former CIA Director James Woolsey, because lawmakers on the intelligence committees, once told about operations, respond, ` "Well, of course, that's the sort of thing the country ought to be doing.' "
Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., for a time called for the CIA's abolition, citing its failure to predict the Soviet Union's collapse.
But such suggestions have faded, and the agency, 25 percent smaller since the end of the Cold War, survives with its new mission, as defined by Director George Tenet, of pursuing "hard targets" such as disrupting terrorist plans, stopping narcotics shipments or fouling up financial transactions of missile makers.
Tenet told Congress recently that CIA plants in terrorist groups had gathered intelligence that helped prevent two attacks in recent months against U.S. embassies.
Sources said the CIA has embarked on new, lighter types of covert operations. It reportedly has:
-- Used computer-hacker activities to disrupt international money transfers and other financial activities of Arab businessmen who support suspected terrorists.
-- Sabotaged military research of hostile governments such as North Korea, Iraq and Iran by having suppliers sell them faulty parts.
-- Spiked exports and imports of rogue countries such as Libya and Iraq with extraneous matter - such as water in oil - to create dissatisfaction with consumers.
"These operations are easier to do and provide incremental successes," a senior intelligence official said. "A shipment is stopped, another is sabotaged, we take down a terrorist cell. Things like this are happening now every week."
Information from The Washington Post was used in this report.
------------------------ Key dates in CIA history ------------------------
-- Sept. 18, 1947. National Security Act of 1947 establishes National Security Council, Central Intelligence Agency.
-- Jan. 20, 1954. CIA Director Allen Dulles approves tunnel into East Berlin to tap Soviet and East German communications.
-- July 4, 1956. First U-2 flight into Soviet airspace.
-- May 1, 1960. Soviets shoot down U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers.
-- Aug. 11, 1960. CIA-led Corona spy satellite program leads to first recovery of a manmade object from space - a film capsule.
-- April 17, 1961. Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba ends in disaster.
-- Oct. 14, 1962. U-2 mission detects Soviet medium-range ballistic missiles in Cuba, touching off Cuban missile crisis.
-- Dec. 22, 1974. New York Times reveals "Operation Chaos," CIA activity directed against anti-Vietnam War protesters. Story touches off firestorm of criticism and leads to congressional investigations.
-- Jan. 27, 1975. Senate establishes committee, led by Sen. Frank Church, which issues 1976 report on CIA assassination plots, abuses.
-- May 19, 1976. Senate establishes permanent Select Committee on Intelligence for formal congressional oversight of CIA.
-- Nov. 4, 1977. Former CIA Director Richard Helms is fined $2,000 and placed on a year's probation after pleading no contest to failing to answer Senate questions. Helms says he was justified in withholding information on CIA operations in Chile because of their sensitivity.
-- June 13, 1985. Aldrich Ames sells Soviets names of some 20 CIA contacts, several of whom are later executed.
-- Dec. 26, 1991. Soviet Union disbands.
-- Feb. 21, 1994. Federal agents arrest Ames in Northern Virginia.
---------------------------- What they say about the CIA: ----------------------------
`I had the gravest forebodings about this organization and warned the President (Truman) that as set up neither he, the National Security Council, nor anyone else would be in a position to know what it was doing or to control it.'
Former secretary of state
`In 50 years the ability to acquire information on what's going on in the world has multiplied extraordinarily through the efforts of the Central Intelligence Agency.'
CIA director, 1966-73
`It is impossible to assess the CIA properly because the agency has suppressed its own historical record.'
Federation of American Scientists
`It wasn't personal. It was simply how the game was played.'
On how he could sell the names of CIA sources in the Soviet Union
`In the first 29 years, under the intensity of the Cold War, we didn't bother to check on the CIA an awful lot and, even if we had, we would have condoned most of the things it did, maybe all, because we were willing to sacrifice our ethical and moral standards in order to win.'
Retired Adm. Stansfield Turner
CIA director, 1977-81
`Presidents and administrations have made excessive, and at times self-defeating use of covert action. . . . The committee believes that covert action must be employed only in the most extraordinary circumstances.'
Church Committee report
`Its greatest contribution was in keeping the Cold War cold.'
CIA director, 1991-93
`The CIA played a major role in fomenting dissent inside the Soviet Union. This is not to say they helped in the downfall of the Soviet Union, because the system fell down of its own great inhumanity and inefficiency and blunders.'
Maj. Gen. Oleg Kalugin
Ex-KGB counterintelligence chief