Through a Glass, Darkly: The CIA and Oral History

Andrew Hammond

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This article broaches the thorny issue of how we may study the history of the CIA by utilizing oral history interviews. This article argues that while oral history interviews impose particular demands upon the researcher, they are particularly pronounced in relation to studying the history of intelligence services. This article, nevertheless, also argues that while intelligence history and oral history each harbour their own epistemological perils and biases, pitfalls which may in fact be pronounced when they are conjoined, the relationship between them may nevertheless be a productive one. Indeed, each field may enrich the other provided we have thought carefully about the linkages between them: this article's point of departure. The first part of this article outlines some of the problems encountered in studying the CIA by relating them to the author's own work. This involved researching the CIA's role in US foreign policy towards Afghanistan since a landmark year in the history of the late Cold War, 1979 (i.e. the year the Soviet Union invaded that country). The second part of this article then considers some of the issues historians must confront when applying oral history to the study of the CIA. To bring this within the sphere of cognition of the reader the author recounts some of his own experiences interviewing CIA officers in and around Washington DC. The third part then looks at some of the contributions oral history in particular can make towards a better understanding of the history of intelligence services and the CIA.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)311-326
JournalHistory: The Journal of the Historical Association
Issue number340
Publication statusPublished - 27 Mar 2015

Bibliographical note

© 2015 The Author. History published by The Historical Association and John Wiley & Sons Ltd.
This is an open access article under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits use,
distribution and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.


  • CIA; oral history; diplomatic history; Afghanistan; intelligence studies


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