“The necessity of procuring good Intelligence is apparent & need not be further urged -- All that remains for me to add is, that you keep the whole matter as secret as possible. For upon Secrecy, Success depends in Most Enterprizes of the kind, and for want of it, they are generally defeated, however well planned & promising a favourable issue.”
-- George Washington,
July 26, 1777
America has carried out foreign intelligence activities for well over two centuries. Recognizing the need for foreign intelligence and foreign alliances, the Second Continental Congress created the Committee of Correspondence by a resolution of November 29, 1775:
RESOLVED, That a committee of five would be appointed for the sole purpose of corresponding with our friends in Great Britain, and other parts of the world, and that they lay their correspondence before Congress when directed;
RESOLVED, That this Congress will make provision to defray all such expenses as they may arise by carrying on such correspondence, and for the payment of such agents as the said Committee may send on this service.
The committee was soon renamed the Committee of Secret Correspondence.
The Committee of Secret Correspondence
The committee members were Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, Benjamin Harrison of Virginia, and Thomas Johnson of Maryland. This was America's first foreign intelligence directorate.
The committee employed secret agents abroad, conducted covert operations, devised codes and ciphers, funded propaganda activities, authorized the opening of private mail, acquired foreign publications for use in analysis, established a courier system, and developed a maritime capability apart from that of the Navy.
On April 17, 1777, the Committee of Secret Correspondence was renamed the Committee of Foreign Affairs, but kept with its intelligence function. Matters of diplomacy were conducted by other committees or by the Congress as a whole.
With the creation of a Department of Foreign Affairs—the forerunner of the Department of State—on January 10, 1781, correspondence "for the purpose of obtaining the most extensive and useful information relative to foreign affairs" was shifted to the new body, whose secretary was empowered to correspond "with all other persons from whom he may expect to receive useful information."
The Secret Committee
Even before setting up the Committee of Secret Correspondence, the Second Continental Congress had created a Secret Committee by a resolution on September 18, 1775. This committee was given wide powers and large sums of money to obtain military supplies in secret, and was charged with distributing the supplies and selling gunpowder to privateers chartered by the Continental Congress. The committee also took over and administered on a uniform basis the secret contracts for arms and gunpowder previously negotiated by certain members of the Congress without the formal sanction of that body. The committee kept its transactions secret, and destroyed many of its records to assure the confidentiality of its work.
The Secret Committee employed agents overseas, often in cooperation with the Committee of Secret Correspondence. It also gathered intelligence about Tory secret ammunition stores and arranged to seize them. The Secret Committee sent missions to plunder British supplies in the southern colonies. It arranged the purchase of military stores through intermediaries so as to conceal the fact that the Continental Congress was the true purchaser. The Secret Committee used foreign flags to protect its vessels from the British fleet.
Those appointed to the committee included some of the most influential members of the Congress: Benjamin Franklin, Robert Morris, Robert Livingston, John Dickinson, Thomas Willing, Thomas McKean, John Langdon, and Samuel Ward.
The Committee on Spies
On June 5, 1776, the Congress appointed John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Edward Rutledge, James Wilson, and Robert Livingston "to consider what is proper to be done with persons giving intelligence to the enemy or supplying them with provisions." The same committee was charged with revising the Articles of War in regard to espionage directed against the patriot forces.
The problem was an urgent one. Dr. Benjamin Church, chief physician of the Continental Army, had already been seized and imprisoned as a British agent, but there was no civilian espionage act, and military law did not provide punishment severe enough to afford a deterrent, in the judgment of Patriot leaders.
On November 7, 1775, the Continental Congress added the death penalty for espionage to the Articles of War, but the clause was not applied retroactively, and Church remained in jail.
On August 21, 1776, the committee's report was considered by the Continental Congress, which enacted the first espionage act:
RESOLVED, That all persons not members of, nor owing allegiance to, any of the United States of America, as described in a resolution to the Congress of the 29th of June last, who shall be found lurking as spies in or about the fortification or encampments of the armies of the United States, or of any of them, shall suffer death, according to the law and usage of nations, by sentence of a court martial, or such ether punishment as such court martial may direct.
It was resolved further that the act "be printed at the end of the rules and articles of war."
On February 27, 1778, the Continental Congress broadened the law to include any "inhabitants of these states" whose intelligence activities aided the enemy in capturing or killing Patriots.