The Agency: A History of the CIA

Course No. 8000
Professor Hugh Wilford, PhD
California State University, Long Beach
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Course No. 8000
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What Will You Learn?

  • numbers Examine the origins of the CIA and America's complicated relationship with foreign intelligence.
  • numbers Study what went right—and wrong—with some of the CIA’s most important covert missions.
  • numbers Learn how the CIA used innovations and advancements in technology to achieve its goals.
  • numbers Explore the relationship between the CIA and popular movies, literature, and television.
  • numbers Discover how Congress and the American people have worked to check the CIA's expansive powers.

Course Overview

Since the eve of the Cold War, the Central Intelligence Agency has been tasked by the U.S. government with keeping watch on an increasingly dangerous and unstable world. Few organizations are as fascinating, as mysterious—and as controversial.

Also known as “the Agency” or “the Company,” the CIA has a dual mission: to gather critical intelligence and analysis and to conduct covert operations aimed at safeguarding U.S. security interests. To do this, its officers work primarily in the shadows, dealing in spies and secrecy, which has led to questions about the organization’s geopolitical role, and the tradeoffs between intelligence work and democratic transparency:

  • Is the CIA operating as it was intended to, or is it in desperate need of repair?
  • What lessons has the CIA learned from its greatest successes and its worst failures?
  • How does intelligence gathering actually work, both for and against U.S. interests?
  • Has the CIA fulfilled its difficult mission for the world’s largest democracy thus far?

According to CIA expert Hugh Wilford, there’s a fundamental tension buried within the heart of the CIA’s mission to protect the American government and people: a tension between democratic accountability and the inherent need for secret government power. Throughout its epic (and surprisingly recent) history, the CIA has swung back and forth between these principles.

What many don’t realize is that it’s U.S. citizens who check the CIA’s power, and who bear the responsibility of staying informed about what the CIA has done and continues to do at home and abroad in their name. In The Agency: A History of the CIA, Professor Wilford of California State University transforms decades of academic research into an engrossing 24-lecture course that helps you better understand the roles the CIA has played in recent American history, from the eve of the Cold War against communism to the 21st-century War on Terror. With his outsider’s objective perspective, Professor Wilford offers an unbiased exploration of the CIA’s inner workings, its successful—and disastrous—operations, its innovations in technology and espionage, and its complex relationship with U.S. presidents and popular culture. In this course, you will find all the information you need to be able to make your own conclusions about what the CIA might have done right, what it might have done wrong, and what it should do in the future.

Investigate the CIA’s Great Successes…

Prior to the birth of the CIA in 1947, Americans entertained strong suspicions of international involvement and excessive government power. That changed, however, with the onset of World War II and the subsequent Cold War against communism—both of which paved the way for advocates of intelligence and international intervention to overcome the nation’s “anti-spy” tradition.

So, what can we make of the CIA’s record in espionage and intelligence? Does it all add up to a failure or to a success?

To answer this complicated question, The Agency guides you through decades of espionage and covert operations. After a look at the CIA’s origins—including the agency’s most obvious predecessor, the Office of Strategic Services, or OSS—and the organization’s evolution from a strict intelligence agency to the United States’s premier covert-action unit, you’ll delve into some of the most remarkable and fascinating successes, including:

  • The sound intelligence the CIA’s U-2 spy plane program provided to President John F. Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis, which highlights the agency’s prowess in using technological innovations to fulfill its mission;
  • The admirable performance of the CIA throughout much of the Vietnam War during the 1960s and 1970s, during which it provided solid battlefield intel and sensible strategic assessments about the negative long-term prospects of U.S. involvement; and
  • The recent successful disruptions of terrorist plots in the ongoing War on Terror, including the foiling of a June 2018 plot (involving the deadly toxin ricin) by a suspected Islamist extremist in Cologne, Germany.


…and Its Stunning Failures

A balanced exploration of the CIA should also take into account the CIA’s many controversial intelligence errors, and Professor Wilford devotes equal time to these historic failures.

You’ll learn how these—sometimes catastrophic—moments came about as the result of everything from bureaucratic knots to the Agency’s surprising lack of human intelligence about volatile regions around the world, including the former communist bloc in Eastern Europe and the Muslim world.

Throughout The Agency, you’ll consider how the CIA often failed or fell short concerning:

  • The Soviet Union’s acquisition of the atomic bomb,
  • The fall of China to the forces of communism,
  • North Korea’s invasion of South Korea,
  • The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, and
  • How long it took to notice the rise of radical Islamism (including the September 11 attacks).

Meet the Men Who Shaped the CIA

Professor Wilford also takes you inside the shadowy world of the CIA, revealing not just how it operated on the domestic and international stage, but also how it operated as its own organization that evolved in step with changing times in American history.

You will meet the individuals who shaped the CIA over the course of decades—some of whom had different ideas of what role the CIA should play at home and abroad—including figures such as:

  • William “Wild Bill” Donovan: If any individual could be called the father of the CIA, it’s Donovan, appointed by President Roosevelt in 1941 to coordinate intelligence information with historically unprecedented powers over civilian and military agencies (a department renamed the Office of Strategic Services after the Pearl Harbor attack).


  • George F. Kennan: This State Department Russia expert, responsible for the conversion of the CIA into a covert-ops shop, urged the U.S. government to adopt a series of aggressive measures against the Soviet Union—including the policy of rolling back the borders of the communist empire.
  • Edward Lansdale: As a CIA operative in Vietnam, Lansdale waged political warfare against the northern Vietnamese government of Ho Chi Minh (including the use of psy-ops targeting Catholics in the north); his story helps you form a more complete understanding of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.
  • James Angleton: One of the CIA’s most compelling personalities, Angleton was responsible for leading a dramatic hunt for Soviet moles inside the CIA—a search which had an enormous impact on the agency’s mission at a crucial moment in its existence and which personified national fears that the CIA would abuse its covert power.

Explore Fascinating CIA Operations

How, exactly, did the CIA plan and conduct its intelligence gathering and covert action? The Agency leads you through various operations throughout the CIA’s history; ops that are equal parts controversial and thrilling.

These include:

  • PB-SUCCESS, the CIA’s codename for its 1954 Guatemala operation that proved (for the CIA, at least) that covert action could be a Cold War magic bullet;
  • The Berlin Tunnel, the CIA’s first major venture into SIGINT (signals interception) that involved the construction of a secret tunnel from the U.S. sector to the Soviet side; and
  • MK-ULTRA, a program run by biochemist Sidney Gottlieb and the CIA’s Technical Services Staff that studied the possible effects of hallucinogens in interrogations.

You’ll also get fresh perspectives on historical moments with which you may already have some passing familiarity, including the Bay of Pigs invasion, the Iran-Contra Affair, and the Iraq War. In many cases, the lectures lead you to consider important questions about both the nature of the CIA and its role in shaping modern history. What makes particular regions of the world ripe for the CIA’s attention? How successful are techniques like drone strikes, rendition, and interrogation? Is the CIA more productive or counterproductive when it comes to foreign affairs?

Along the way, you will also explore how the reality of the CIA compares with the wealth of popular culture that depicts the agency, as well as how the CIA itself has directly and intentionally used literature, film, and other media as tools in its own operations.

An Objective Look at the CIA

For his entire life, Professor Wilford has been fascinated by spies and spying—a fascination that’s undeniably contagious. He’s researched and published extensively on the history of the CIA and international U.S. relations, and has interviewed former spies.

“I’m not going to come down strongly on one side of the debate about the CIA,” Professor Wilford says. “As someone who grew up in England, I still have a bit of an outsider perspective that I think helps make my approach to the CIA fairly objective.”

The result is a thorough, well-balanced exploration of one of America’s most intriguing organizations. So, join the debate with The Agency and start forming your own opinions about an organization that will continue to play a pivotal, game-changing role in history for years to come.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 28 minutes each
  • 1
    Secrecy, Democracy, and the Birth of the CIA
    Why did the United States create a secret foreign intelligence service in the first place? For the answer, examine three key periods of U.S. government intelligence before the birth of the CIA: the American Revolution to the late 1930s, World War II, and the postwar years from 1945 to 1947. x
  • 2
    George Kennan and the Rise of Covert Ops
    Professor Wilford reveals how the CIA transformed from an intelligence agency to housing the United States' premier covert-action unit in the space of just two years. Central to this conversion is George F. Kennan, who declared political warfare" against the Soviet Union through his policies of both containment and "rollback."" x
  • 3
    The CIA, China, and the Korean War
    Discover how the CIA, with its attention drawn to Asia, failed to rein in the growing emphasis on covert operations and restore its focus on intelligence gathering and analysis. Two factors you'll focus on: the lack of public scrutiny of the CIA's actions and the arrival of future CIA director Allen Dulles. x
  • 4
    The Iran Coup of August 1953
    More than any other operation, the 1953 Iran Coup created a culture of covert action that would shape the CIA's future. First, study the shifting political attitudes toward Iranian nationalism. Then, learn about the Iran operation itself (TP-AJAX). Finally, ponder who was most responsible for Mohammad Mosaddeq's fall from power. x
  • 5
    Regime Change in Guatemala
    In this lecture, explore the CIA's role in the Guatemalan coup (the operation codenamed PB-SUCCESS) that brought about a new era of murderous dictatorship to the country-and a surge of anti-American sentiment across Central and South America that has haunted U.S. relations with the region to this day. x
  • 6
    Operation Rollback in Eastern Europe
    One of the CIA's first major setbacks was the tragic failure of the Hungarian uprising, despite the agency's attempts to liberate the Eastern Bloc countries during the early 1950s. Here, investigate CIA efforts to organize anti-communist Eastern European emigres to liberate their homelands and the creation of Radio Free Europe to counteract communist-controlled media. x
  • 7
    U-2 Spy Missions and Battleground Berlin
    Focus on the CIA's efforts to gain intelligence about its chief Cold War enemy: the Soviet Union. Professor Wilford covers how the CIA employed human agents as spies (HUMINT), how the CIA attempted to intercept Soviet signals (SIGINT), and how the CIA used advanced technology-like the U-2 spy plane-to gather intelligence (TECHINT). x
  • 8
    The CIA in Syria, Indonesia, and the Congo
    Go inside the CIA's three major covert ops setbacks of the late 1950s. The first was a follow-up attempt at regime change in Syria (1957), the second was an attempt to unseat the Indonesia leader Sukarno (1958), and the last was the effort to remove the Congolese prime minster, Patrice Lumumba (1960). x
  • 9
    Under Orders: The Agency Targets Castro
    Why were both Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy so dead-set on removing Fidel Castro from power? How did the CIA plan to use hallucinogens to assassinate the communist dictator? What made the CIA's Bay of Pigs covert operation such a resounding-and public-disaster? x
  • 10
    Missile Crisis in Cuba and at Langley
    The Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 was arguably the defining moment in the Cold War: 13 days in which the world came closest to a nuclear confrontation. Using recent scholarship, Professor Wilford unpacks the CIA's performance during the crisis and how it sparked a return to traditional intelligence work instead of covert ops. x
  • 11
    Unquiet American: Edward Lansdale in Vietnam
    Get a more complete understanding of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War by including the CIA in the larger narrative-specifically the fascinating and controversial Edward Lansdale. Learn how the CIA tried to win the war through nation-building and counterinsurgency, and how it provided the military with tactical and strategic intelligence. x
  • 12
    CIA Fronts and the Ramparts Expose
    Why did the CIA secretly fund groups of Americans at home in the United States-the longest-running and most expensive operation of the Cold War era? What did the groups themselves think of the roles they played? Investigate how the rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union quickly became a global ideological battle. x
  • 13
    Spies in Hollywood: Romance and Thriller
    Since its inception, the CIA has deliberately tried to influence the purveyors of culture in film, television, and literature. Visit the cultural front of the Cold War as the CIA becomes a secret patron of American musicians, artists, writers, and filmmakers. Also, take a closer look at how popular culture, in turn, shaped the CIA. x
  • 14
    Nixon, Kissinger, and the Coup in Chile
    Professor Wilford challenges the dominant narrative of the CIA's involvement in the Chilean coup of 1973. Learn why the organization was less responsible than other U.S. players (such as Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger), and why the coup illustrates the agency's decline during the 1970s as a chief weapon of the Cold War. x
  • 15
    Watergate, Nixon, and the Family Jewels
    Using recently released government records, unpack the domestic CIA operations of the Nixon era and discover a systemic culture of secret government overreach-with the CIA at the center. Topics include the program known as MH-CHAOS, the CIA's contributions to Watergate, and journalist Seymour Hersh's 1974 expose of CIA domestic intelligence operations. x
  • 16
    James Angleton and the Great CIA Molehunt
    Explore intelligence officer James Angleton's dramatic hunt for Soviet moles inside the CIA, a story of deception, betrayal, and tragedy. Angleton's story-and his ultimate fate-hold powerful lessons for our own time, when secret state power is the source of renewed public debate and concern. x
  • 17
    Colby, Church, and the CIA Crisis of 1975
    The 1970s saw a growing movement against the CIA, from congressional joint-oversight committees to whistleblowers like Philip Agee. Was the CIA out of control? What forces drove the antagonism toward the agency, and why were they so powerful in the spring of 1975? Discover the answers here. x
  • 18
    The CIA, Carter, and the Hostage Crisis in Iran
    Go inside the story of the 1979 Tehran hostage crisis that wracked Jimmy Carter's presidency, with a particular focus on the CIA's failure to anticipate Iran's Islamic revolution. Despite the geopolitical gloom, spend some time examining the one bright spot for the CIA: the successful rescue of six diplomats who avoided capture. x
  • 19
    Reagan, Casey, and the Iran-Contra Scandal
    The start of the Reagan presidency saw a return to the unchecked freedom of the CIA's golden age. Then came the Iran-Contra Scandal, which culminated in criminal charges, convictions, pardons, and dismissals. As you'll learn, the potential for 1970s-style conflict between Congress and the CIA remained. x
  • 20
    Afghanistan, the Soviets, and the CIA
    Turn now to the final years of the Cold War and the CIA's adventures in Afghanistan during the 1980s. Also, investigate the agency's intelligence about the collapse of the Eastern Bloc and the Soviet Union a decade later. Do covert operatives deserve credit for bringing these events about? x
  • 21
    Intelligence Failure: The Road to 9/11
    First, follow the rise of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda during the final decades of the 20th century and the dawn of the terrorist organization's war with the United States. Then, Professor Wilford addresses the provocative question of why the CIA failed to predict-or disrupt-the terrorist attacks of September 11. x
  • 22
    CIA Advance in Afghanistan, Retreat in Iraq
    Trace the CIA's role in the first years of the War on Terror-years that were among the darkest in the agency's history. Focus on the agency's major setbacks in the War on Terror, including the failure to capture Osama bin Laden and the faulty evidence that led to the Iraq War. x
  • 23
    CIA Renditions, Interrogations, and Drones
    Examine the CIA's role in two phases of the War on Terror: the capture and interrogation of suspected terrorists and, after those methods were discredited, the killing of terrorists using drone strikes. By the end of the Obama era, the agency had regained some of its stature-and had become more vulnerable. x
  • 24
    The CIA Balance Sheet: Wins and Losses
    What does a balance sheet of the CIA's wins and losses since its creation look like? As Professor Wilford reveals, the CIA's intelligence performance hasn't been as poor as some have argued. But there still remains, in the world's largest democracy, an abiding tension between secret government power and accountability. x

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Your professor

Hugh Wilford

About Your Professor

Hugh Wilford, PhD
California State University, Long Beach
Hugh Wilford is a Professor of History at California State University, Long Beach (CSULB). He was born in the United Kingdom and graduated with a BA with honors in Modern History from the University of Bristol. Professor Wilford earned his PhD in American Studies from the University of Exeter. He began his career teaching US history in England at Middlesex University in London and the University of Sheffield. While still...
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The Agency: A History of the CIA is rated 4.1 out of 5 by 48.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from This is an excellent course, and well worth the price of admission. Devotees of tradecraft and CIA story-telling may have found things to quibble with, but the instructor is well informed, the course is deeply researched, and he has given us a well balanced overview of the Agency's history. That is no mean feat, considering that even with the Freedom of Information Act, we are, after all, dealing with a historical account of a highly secret organization. I am in agreement with three main conclusions the instructor draws, viz.: 1. Covert action has too often been allowed to overshadow and even disadvantage the Agency's original and primary goal, that of intelligence gathering and analysis. 2. The Agency erred by exceeding its authority to spy on American citizens. 3. The politicization of intelligence has been the single greatest blow against the Agency's integrity; its duty and ability to speak truth to power. The instructor's cases for these points are, I believe, irrefutable. The quibbles should be heard, but dismissed. First of all, one detects the exhalation of some of our currently toxic political atmosphere, which is anachronistic. Secondly, most of them are merely atmospheric in another sense, i.e. they object to things which are true, but trivial. For example, there were the redactions of power-point texts, which detracted from the presentation, but which were doubtless the work of a too-zealous production team. To object to the fact that the instructor is reading from a prompter is to underestimate the work entailed in lecturing. Nearly all lecturers work from notes; to do otherwise would degrade the coherence of the narrative and introduce the halts, hesitations, and loss of thought train that bedevil even the best teachers. That would be far more distracting to watch. It is also bootless to object to the professor's use of his hands. All lecturers have idiosyncracies - it would be a boring one who had none, and it is the job of the audience to engage with the presentation sufficiently to make such things fade from consciousness. This is a great course. Enjoy it, and discover things with which you may disagree.
Date published: 2020-10-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very informative and interesting. An excellent unbiased overview of the history of the CIA from its inception up to the present. Dr Wilford obviously has an extensive background in the subject and presents it well. The visual materials are also well done. I look forward to reading more on the subject guided by his suggested reading list, several of which I had previously read.
Date published: 2020-08-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Good Start I enjoyed the course. It gave me a better understanding as to where the CIA fits among the many different intel agencies. The course is not a promoter or critic of the CIA and does a great job of informing the who, what, when, and where's of the agency.
Date published: 2020-08-06
Date published: 2020-07-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Highly recommended! I had read several of the books referenced in this course, but this class really gave me the full sweep of the Agency’s activities and history and placed it all in context. For those who have complained of a bias against the Agency, they have obviously brought their own politics to this course. Don’t be dissuaded by their attacks. This is the most even-handed, fair and balanced assessment I’ve encountered. Certainly compared to some of the books written about the Agency that see only failures and not the successes and call for it to be eliminated entirely. For me the most chilling part of the history was JFK’s horrified reaction to the CIA-backed assassination of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem on November 2, 1963. Three weeks last Kennedy would be assassinated as well. When Malcom X was excoriated for saying of the JFK killing that ‘the chickens have come home to roost’ we did not know how chillingly accurate his statement was.
Date published: 2020-07-06
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Disappointed I have done many Great Courses for education and fun. This was the first course that was very political and not objective. Per the lecturer, the CIA did nothing right. I was looking for education, but felt these lectures were a very slanted position.
Date published: 2020-05-29
Rated 2 out of 5 by from He READS! I have purchased and enjoyed the Great Courses for over thirty years.Engaging presenters are critical. I could not finish this course. The professor sits and READS! His eyes barely move and no contact is made with the audience. He never served in an intelligence service, so there is no nuance. A dual taught course with a professor and a former intelligence officer would have been terrific.I note there many retired intelligence officers living very near the headquarters of the Great Courses!
Date published: 2020-05-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very interesting content, some presentation flaws This is one of the best Great Courses I have viewed. Prof. Wilford is an excellent speaker. He uses more of a storytelling approach to convey the history of the Agency, which I found to be fascinating, and rarely discussed in other American History material. PROS: + Even-handed analysis, no personal-politics-creep into the lectures + Material is well-organized + Use of personal background stories enhanced my understanding of what happened and made it more entertaining + There seemed to be just the right amount of detail in each episode CONS: - The multiple camera angles on Prof. Wilford made the lecture more visually appealing, but I found it quite distracting that he only makes eye contact with the camera on about half of the camera angles. The speaker's eyes needs to follow the active camera, like in a newscast, but Wilford failed to do this. - It seemed fairly obvious that Wilford was reading the material from a teleprompter. The presentation would be improved if the Professor appeared to be speaking extemporaneously, referring to notes. - The visuals showing a background paper that appeared to be redacted was just silly. When I paused the video and read the papers, it was clear the blckened crossouts were put there just for effect - not necessary. Overall, the cons are much more minor than the pros, and I really enjoyed this course!
Date published: 2020-05-10
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