McLEAN, Va. — In 1946 when President Harry S. Truman swore in the nation's first director of central intelligence, a Missouri businessman named Sidney Souers, Truman presented him with a black cloak and hat and a wooden dagger and dubbed him "director of central snooping."
To many of the 200 scholars and CIA alumni who have met here for the last two days to ponder the implications of the CIA's early years, Truman's sometimes irreverent view of the mystique of international espionage served as a valuable guide to assessing the agency's future in the post-Cold War world.
"I am continually impressed as to how right Harry Truman's instincts were to be skeptical, particularly about covert action, even if the implementation sometimes was off," says Cold War scholar John Lewis Gaddis of Ohio University.
The meeting, which took place a short drive from the CIA's Langley, Va., headquarters, came at a time of deep turmoil in the agency caused by revelations that its Cold War mission was severely compromised by a high-placed mole who allegedly sold national security secrets to the Soviet Union and later Russia over a period of nine years.
The recent allegations about Aldrich H. Ames have once again raised questions about the agency's objectives and techniques. The conference, scheduled long before Ames' Feb. 21 arrest, served as a reminder that those questions have dogged the agency throughout its history.
The conference also pointed up a strong parallel between the challenges facing the agency at its inception and those confronting it today--both times of great change. The CIA of the 1990s is struggling to find its mission in a world dominated by a single superpower. In Truman's era, the agency was trying to define its role in the Cold War rivalry.
In 1945, not long after he took office and celebrated the end of World War II, Truman terminated the Office of Strategic Services, the country's wartime intelligence agency, dispersing what was left of its functions between the War and State departments.
"But between 1945 and 1947 the shooting war against German fascism turned into a Cold War against Russian communism and the international political order was turned upside down," Stanford University historian Barry Katz pointed out at one of the panel discussions.
"National security was defined then as being against the Soviet Union," said Tom Allen, co-author of "Merchants of Treason," a book about espionage over the last decade. The question now, he said, is "what is the definition of national security and what is the job of the CIA?"
In trying to answer such questions nearly half a century ago, scholars believe that Truman probably benefited from the hard-headed "show me" attitude and motto of his home state of Missouri. "This is as big a lot of top secret malarkey as I've ever seen," he wrote on one briefing paper, according to Gen. Donald Dawson, president of the Truman Library Institute, which co-sponsored the conference.
On the other hand, Truman's patriotic pride, bordering on chauvinism, sometimes made him reject well-grounded warnings about the threat from Joseph Stalin's Kremlin.
But as Stalin flexed his muscles in Eastern Europe, Truman became convinced, more than he later liked to admit, of the need for a powerful intelligence agency to counter the Soviet threat. Only a few months after abolishing the OSS, he installed Souers, who was a rear admiral in the Naval Reserve, as head of a new organization--the Central Intelligence Group, which less than two years later was superseded by the CIA.
In June, 1948, in the wake of the Communist coup in Czechoslovakia, and the Soviet blockade of Berlin, Truman signed the fateful National Security directive 10/2, included in the 473-page compendium of documents distributed at the conference, which authorized the CIA to conduct covert operations.
The directive, which over the years would become the focal point of critics who depicted the CIA as a reckless and sinister force, asserted that covert operations should be carried out in such a way so that, "if uncovered, the U.S. government can plausibly disclaim any responsibility for them."
This covert role, unlike any other official activity ever conducted by the U.S. government, soon created concern within the agency.
Truman did nothing to rein in the agency's covert operations, which included bolstering anti-communist forces in the Italian elections and the French labor movement and checking the Communist dominated Huk guerrillas in the Philippines.
"I don't think he had any idea that covert operations would become as huge as it became and that it would lead to Guatemala and Iran," where the CIA helped to overthrow established regimes during the administration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, said University of Toronto professor Wesley Wark.
Other operations followed, including the abortive Bay of Pigs invasion that President John F. Kennedy allowed to go forward, and unsavory episodes in Indonesia, Burma, Vietnam and elsewhere. In 1964, a dozen years after Truman left office, he finally came down hard on the CIA's covert mission.
The agency had been so far removed from its "intended role" of intelligence gathering, Truman complained in a newspaper column, that it is "being interpreted as a symbol of sinister and mysterious foreign intrigue--and a subject for Cold War enemy propaganda."