Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Imperial Blowback and the CIA’s ‘Tainted Source’

America’s premier intelligence service has a fundamental design flaw.

(MyImages - Micha/Shutterstock)

Among the most recent redactions lifted on documents related to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy housed at the National Archives are two lines in a fifteen-page memorandum from presidential aide Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.—“SUBJECT: CIA Reorganization”—written in June 1961 at Kennedy’s request. In the memo, Schlesinger proposes “a fairly drastic rearrangement of our current intelligence set-up.” Although almost a page-and-a-half remains redacted, recently disclosed text includes the title sentence of the blocked-out section: “3. The Controlled American Source (CAS) represents a particular aspect of CIA’s encroachment on policy-making functions.”

With the benefit of hindsight, we can now speculate on the adverse effects of an institution of U.S. intelligence that may account for only part of the CIA’s use of public funds. Investigative journalist Jefferson Morley, a historian of President Kennedy’s assassination, explains on his Substack site, JFK Facts, that a “Controlled American Source” is “any organizational entity at a U.S. mission that might be construed as an intelligence organization under cover.” In other words, a CAS is an organizational “asset” of American intelligence run covertly inside another country.


Schlesinger refers to the CAS in another section of the memo (on doctrine), wondering only “whether the overdoing of CAS is not beginning to harm other activities of the government.” The author probably lacked detailed information on these assets, their locations around the world or their budgets, but the White House could have briefed him on organization. Whatever the case, perpetual redaction of the CAS section is thought-provoking at minimum.

Kennedy’s request for counsel was prompted by a failed attempt the previous April to remove Cuban Communist leader Fidel Castro from power. JFK had publicly assumed responsibility—as the “responsible officer of the government” while noting that “victory has a hundred fathers and defeat is an orphan”—but privately felt he had been tricked into approving an operation planned before he took office. Hardliners in the national-security apparatus had hoped to execute the plan under President Richard Nixon. But when Nixon lost narrowly in 1960, the CIA had to proceed without the active cooperation and supervision of Eisenhower’s pugilistic vice president. 

According to a version of the episode, proponents of the invasion assured Kennedy that the Cuban people would rise up en masse and overthrow Castro as soon as a CIA-trained force of Cuban exiles landed on the beach. Secretly, this version goes, the CIA knew this wouldn’t happen but assumed Kennedy would approve a full-scale invasion at the eleventh hour, including air support, rather than allow the operation—known as the Bay of Pigs invasion—to collapse. When he refused, he made enemies far beyond the three men he ultimately let go in November: CIA Director Allen Dulles, Deputy Director Charles Cabell, and Deputy Director for Plans (later renamed Operations) Richard Bissell. 

Schlesinger’s memo is among the more eloquent documents in the “JFK Collection,” and the CIA evidently considers the still-redacted section very sensitive. It has reportedly asked the President to conceal it from public view. Still, the published sections are highly revealing. The introduction states: 

The argument of this memorandum is that CIA’s trouble can be traced to the autonomy with which the agency has been permitted to operate and that this autonomy is due to three main causes: (1) an inadequate doctrine of clandestine operations; (2) an inadequate conception of the relationship between operations and policy; (3) an inadequate conception of the relationship between operations and intelligence.


On “CIA Autonomy,” Schlesinger counsels increased State Department control but notes the customary timidity of that federal ministry in assuming a supervisory role (“some ambassadors frankly preferred not to know what the CIA was up to in their countries”).

For its part, CIA has developed a whole series of functions paralleling already existing functions of the State Department, and of the Defense Department as well. Today it has its own political desks and military staffs; it has in effect its own foreign service; it has (or has had) its own combat forces; it even has its own air force. Its annual budget is about [blank] times that of the State Department. The contemporary CIA possesses many of the characteristics of a state within a state. [emphasis added]

In the “Doctrine” section, he notes the possible occasional need to “subsidize newspapers, politicians and organizations in other countries,” but that “corruption of the political life of another nation is not a responsibility to be lightly assumed,” and “I wonder whether CIA has not done too much of this for the joy of it.” So far has such suspicion developed among our citizenry, now social media influencers ponder a host of derogatory books about Russia in print thanks to CIA subsidy.

One of the most interesting sections of Schlesinger’s report, entitled “Operations and Intelligence,” includes a brief analysis of the British system, hinting that it might offer a model.

“Under the British system, clandestine collection is entrusted to the Secret Intelligence Service,” he writes. “The research, analysis and estimating function is located in the Foreign Office Research Department.” 

He contrasts this with America, where “CIA has responsibility for both clandestine collection and research and analysis,” implying a conflict of interest, because, “where in Great Britain the Foreign Office plays the coordinating role in the intelligence field, in the United States that role has been assumed by CIA.” Dulles himself, notes Schlesinger, overtly supported this arrangement.

In 1947, Dulles wrote that “the proper judging of the situation in a foreign country” required information to be “processed by an agency whose duty it is to weigh facts, and to draw conclusions from those facts” without the facts or conclusions being “warped” by policymakers who are “likely to be blind to any facts which might tend to prove the policy to be faulty.” 

Schlesinger rebutted Dulles’s opinion as follows:

Precisely the same argument can be used with equal effect against the incorporation of the research and estimate function in CIA—i.e., if intelligence is too closely connected with operations, then those committed to a particular operation will tend to select out the intelligence which validates the operation.

He then went on to characterize the assumption that the “intelligence branch” (analysis) of the CIA was never even informed of the existence of “the Cuban operation” (Bay of Pigs), and that the “Office of National Estimates was never asked to comment on the assumption, for example, that discontent had reached the point in Cuba where a successful landing operation would provoke uprisings behind the lines.” The failure of the invasion was thus rooted in the “self-contained” nature of an agency in charge of monitoring itself. It now looks as if, by the time JFK began taking the first steps toward reform, it was too late. Dulles’s views carried the day, and the CIA developed the way it did, leading many to posit the conspiratorial explanation that President Kennedy was murdered for attempting to put Pandora back in its box.

The Schlesinger document is “assassination related” because events subsequent to November 22, 1963, led to the ex post facto characterization of official files. In December 1963, former President Harry S. Truman published an op-ed in the Washington Post calling for the CIA to be defanged or dismantled, citing as a problem the same “autonomy” Schlesinger had analyzed in his memo. Motivated by JFK’s assassination, Truman began writing his piece nine days after it happened. As the CIA had emerged under his presidency, the potential impact on public opinion was substantial. 

By the time Truman began putting pen to paper, former CIA chief Allen Dulles had already managed to get himself appointed to the very presidential commission assigned to investigate the assassination itself. During that inquiry, Dulles desperately tried to convince Truman to publicly retract his December article. When he failed, he lied to the CIA’s general counsel, saying Truman had disavowed it. Truman publicly reiterated his message in June 1964. 

Why did Dulles, who was no longer collecting a CIA salary, try feverishly to neutralize Truman’s public criticism? Did he retain a “professional interest” therein? As the only member of Lyndon Johnson’s “blue-ribbon” panel without a full-time job, he certainly proved himself the most active commissioner by far.

Recent document releases show that no fewer than four Mexican presidents were linked to U.S. intelligence. Did the “corruption” Schlesinger cited, so manifest in America’s most populous neighbor, endure despite CIA control of Mexican institutions or because of it? Since 1961, Mexico has graduated to formal multiparty nation-statehood, a not-insignificant reform. Yet hordes of migrants still routinely try to leave the place, most going north. Has a historically unaccountable CIA—with its CAS entity—contributed to the current crisis? 

As a citizenry, we should know if a quality of the CAS identified back in 1961 has been material to serious foreign policy abuses. Historically, such abuses have included wasteful and unsuccessful interventions in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Today, the causes of our costly, open-ended involvement in Ukraine are suspect. All of it makes public interest in transparency over potential institutional agents of “blowback” within our national-security state more compelling by the day.