counterintelligence, and covert action are embedded in U.S. history.
From the time of the Revolutionary War through the present, these activities have
helped protect our nation’s security.
the Revolutionary War, America’s
use of intelligence techniques was vital to the outcome of the struggle. The military
forces of the British – the world’s reigning superpower at the time – were
better-funded and better-organized than the Americans. But through the use of
various clandestine techniques, the Continentals had a chance against the
Washington and patriots such as Benjamin Franklin and John Jay directed a broad
range of clandestine operations that helped the colonies win independence. They
ran networks of agents and double agents; employed deceptions against the
British army; launched sabotage operations and paramilitary raids; used codes
and ciphers; and disseminated propaganda and disinformation to influence
Drawing on the
experience he gained as a general during the war, President Washington asked
Congress for funds to support clandestine activities. Congress agreed, and
established a secret fund specifically for this purpose, which represented more
than 10 percent of the federal budget by Washington’s
second term as President.
the early Republic were actively involved in intelligence activities —
especially covert actions. Thomas Jefferson drew from this secret fund to
finance the United States'
first covert attempt to topple a foreign government, one of the Barbary Pirate
States, in 1804-05. It failed. From 1810 to 1812, James Madison used the fund
to employ agents and clandestine paramilitary forces to influence Spain to relinquish territory in Florida.
The North and the South
In the Civil
War, the Union and Confederacy extensively
engaged in clandestine activities. They acquired intelligence from clandestine
agents, military scouts, captured documents, intercepted mail, decoded
telegrams, newspapers, and interrogations of prisoners and deserters. Neither
side had a formal, national-level military intelligence service.
principal spymasters were Allen Pinkerton and Lafayette Baker — who both proved
most effective at counterespionage — and military officers George Sharpe and
Grenville Dodge. The Confederacy had a loose array of secret services that
collected intelligence and conducted sabotage and other covert actions.
Five of the war’s
most celebrated agents were women — Rose Greenhow, Belle Boyd, and Nancy Hart
for the South, and Pauline Cushman and Elizabeth van Lew for the North.
Southern agents in Europe engaged in
propaganda and secret commercial activities. Overall, the North was more
effective at espionage and counterintelligence, while the South had more
success at covert action. The hard-won expertise and organization built up
during the Civil War was soon demobilized and dispersed.
The United States'
first formal permanent intelligence organizations were formed in the 1880s: the
Office of Naval Intelligence and the Army's Military Intelligence Division.
They posted attachés in several major European cities principally for
open-source collection and observing military maneuvers.
Spanish-American War broke out in 1898, the attachés switched to espionage.
They created informant rings and ran reconnaissance operations to learn about
Spanish military intentions and capabilities — most importantly, the location
of the Spanish Navy.
military officer used well-placed sources he had recruited in the Western Union
telegraph office in Havana to intercept communications between Madrid and
Spanish commanders in Cuba. The U.S. Secret Service — in charge of domestic
counterintelligence during the war — broke up a Spanish spy ring based in Montreal that planned to
infiltrate the U.S. Army.
U.S. Intelligence Faces New Challenges During World War I
By 1914, the United States'
ability to collect foreign intelligence had shrunk drastically because of
budget cuts and reorganizations in the government. The State Department began
small-scale collection against the Central Powers in 1916, but it was not until
the United States declared
war on Germany
in 1917 that Army and Navy intelligence finally received more money and
personnel. By then, it was too late to increase their intelligence output to
aid the cause significantly.
significant advance for U.S.
intelligence during the war was the establishment of a permanent communications
intelligence agency in the Army — the forerunner of the National Security
Agency. Meanwhile, the Secret Service and military counterintelligence
aggressively thwarted numerous German covert actions inside the United States, including
psychological warfare, political and economic operations, and dozens of acts of
sabotage against British-owned firms and factories supplying munitions to
Britain and Russia.
Department's Bureau of Investigation (forerunner of the FBI) took on a
counterintelligence role in 1916, and Congress passed the first federal
espionage law in 1917.
Breaking Codes and Busting Foreign Agents
Secretary of State Henry Stimson's oft-quoted comment that "gentlemen do
not read each other's mail," by 1941, the United States had built a
world-class signals intelligence capability.
wars, American intelligence officers concentrated on codebreaking and
counterintelligence operations against Germany
The "Black Chamber" under Herbert Yardley, the Army's Signals
Intelligence Service under William Friedman, and Navy cryptanalysts cracked Tokyo's diplomatic
encryption systems. Working backward from intercepts, Friedman's team figured
out what kind of cipher device the Japanese used — the "Purple"
1930s and early 1940s, the FBI launched an extremely effective
counterintelligence attack on German and Japanese espionage and sabotage
operations in the Western Hemisphere. U.S. operatives
infiltrated many networks and arrested dozens of agents. The FBI had less
success against Soviet efforts to penetrate U.S. government and economic
FDR Creates OSS
entry into World War II seemed to draw closer in 1941, President Franklin
Roosevelt created the country's first peacetime, civilian intelligence agency —
the Office of the Coordinator of Information.
however, the United States
suffered its most costly intelligence disaster up to then when the Japanese
bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. That
failure — a result of analytical misconceptions, collection gaps, bureaucratic
confusion, and careful Japanese denial and deception measures — led to the
establishment of a larger and more diversified intelligence agency in 1942: the
Office of Strategic Services. The OSS
is the forerunner of today’s Central Intelligence Agency.