A Look Back ... Intelligence and the Committee of Secret Correspondence
With the start of the American Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress recognized the need for foreign alliances and intelligence gathering. To meet this need, the Congress created a panel called the Committee of Secret Correspondence on November 29, 1775, “for the sole purpose of corresponding with our friends in Great Britain and other parts of the world.” In addition to its stated objective of gauging European sympathy toward the American Revolution, the committee’s purpose also included intelligence work. Members of the Congress realized that forging alliances with foreign countries—secretly if necessary—would provide critical support to the American cause.
The Committee of Secret Correspondence had wide-ranging duties abroad. It conducted covert operations, devised codes and ciphers, employed operatives, funded propaganda, acquired foreign publications for use in analysis, authorized the surreptitious opening of private mail, established a courier system, and developed a maritime capability distinct from that of the Navy.
The Committee functioned alongside two other intelligence-related groups: the Secret Committee, which was formed in September 1775 and was responsible for obtaining military supplies, and the Committee on Spies, created in June 1776, for counterintelligence activities.
The first members of the Committee of Secret Correspondence included Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin Harrison, Thomas Johnson, John Jay, and James Lovell. Two of those men became well-known in the world of intelligence: James Lovell and Benjamin Franklin.
Lovell was a teacher arrested by the British for spying after the Battle of Bunker Hill in 1775. He was exchanged later that next year for a British prisoner and was elected to the Continental Congress in 1777. While serving on the Committee of Secret Correspondence, Lovell was Congress’s expert on codes and ciphers and became known as the father of American cryptanalysis.
Franklin, the only member with experience in foreign affairs, dominated the Committee, corresponding with friends in Europe and sounding out the possibility of an alliance with America. The French soon dispatched Julien Alexandre Achard de Bonvouloir to America to examine the feasibility of covert aid and political support, and the Committee sent its own secret agent, Silas Deane, to France for the same purposes in April 1776. Franklin himself left for Paris in late 1776 on his famous, and ultimately successful, mission to forge an alliance with France.
Forerunners of Future American Agencies
The Committee of Secret Correspondence became the Committee of Foreign Affairs in April 1777 but retained its intelligence functions. As the first American government agency for both foreign intelligence and diplomatic representation, it may be regarded as a forerunner of both the State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency, as well as Congress’s current intelligence oversight committees.
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