The Agency: A History of the CIA

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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The Agency: A History of the CIA
Course Trailer
Secrecy, Democracy, and the Birth of the CIA
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.

29 min
George Kennan and the Rise of Covert Ops
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.”

30 min
The CIA, China, and the Korean War
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.

29 min
The Iran Coup of August 1953
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.

27 min
Regime Change in Guatemala
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.

30 min
Operation Rollback in Eastern Europe
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 émigrés to liberate their homelands and the creation of Radio Free Europe to counteract communist-controlled media.

29 min
U-2 Spy Missions and Battleground Berlin
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).

29 min
The CIA in Syria, Indonesia, and the Congo
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).

30 min
Under Orders: The Agency Targets Castro
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?

28 min
Missile Crisis in Cuba and at Langley
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.

27 min
Unquiet American: Edward Lansdale in Vietnam
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.

31 min
CIA Fronts and the Ramparts Exposé
12: CIA Fronts and the Ramparts Exposé

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.

29 min
Spies in Hollywood: Romance and Thriller
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.

27 min
Nixon, Kissinger, and the Coup in Chile
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.

29 min
Watergate, Nixon, and the Family Jewels
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 exposé of CIA domestic intelligence operations.

27 min
James Angleton and the Great CIA Molehunt
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.

30 min
Colby, Church, and the CIA Crisis of 1975
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.

27 min
The CIA, Carter, and the Hostage Crisis in Iran
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.

29 min
Reagan, Casey, and the Iran-Contra Scandal
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.

29 min
Afghanistan, the Soviets, and the CIA
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?

28 min
Intelligence Failure: The Road to 9/11
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.

28 min
CIA Advance in Afghanistan, Retreat in Iraq
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.

28 min
CIA Renditions, Interrogations, and Drones
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.

29 min
The CIA Balance Sheet: Wins and Losses
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.

32 min
Hugh Wilford

A fundamental contradiction lies at the heart of the CIA's existence. It's the tension between democracy and accountability on one hand, and the need for secrecy on the other to protect the government and its people.


California State University, Long Beach


University of California, Santa Barbara

About Hugh Wilford

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 based in the UK, he received scholarships from the Fulbright Commission and the British government to teach and research in the United States, first at CSULB, then at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he remains a Faculty Affiliate. At CSULB, Professor Wilford has received a President’s Award for Outstanding Faculty Achievement in teaching and research and the Distinguished Faculty Scholarly & Creative Achievement Award. He has also received awards from several other US institutions, including the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Princeton University Library, and the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. Professor Wilford has published extensively in the field of US history on such topics as the CIA, US–Middle East relations, Americanization and anti-Americanism in Europe, the American left, and US intellectuals. He is the author of many scholarly articles and papers as well as several books, including The Mighty Wurlitzer: How the CIA Played America; The CIA, the British Left and the Cold War: Calling the Tune?; and The New York Intellectuals: From Vanguard to Institution. Professor Wilford’s book America’s Great Game: The CIA’s Secret Arabists and the Shaping of the Modern Middle East won a gold medal in The Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Book Prize competition. He is the coeditor, with Helen Laville, of The US Government, Citizen Groups and the Cold War: The State-Private Network. Professor Wilford’s work has been featured in numerous TV, radio, and newspaper interviews.

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