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The Historical Intelligence Collection: Applying the Past to the Present and Future

Creation of the Historical Intelligence Collection

By the mid-1950s nonfiction books about intelligence were appearing at the rate of one per week. The CIA legislative counsel, Walter Pforzheimer, acquired and read copies for his private collection and from time to time mentioned interesting works — for example, World War II espionage memoirs — to Director of Central Intelligence Allen Dulles.

When Dulles asked about the state of the Agency library with regard to espionage books, Pforzheimer tactfully pointed out that their efforts had yet to be directed to the subject. Dulles responded by tasking Pforzheimer to come up with a plan for creating and operating a special collection of all important books on intelligence — in all languages. Its purpose was to serve as a reservoir of historical and contemporary open source experience. Thus the Historical Intelligence Collection (HIC) was created on January 31, 1956 and Pforzheimer was made Curator, responsible for selecting books and for knowing and evaluating their content.

Before his retirement in 1974, the collection had grown to about 20,000 volumes. It contains nearly 25,000 volumes today.


Rare Books Bring Early Espionage to Light

Aside from staying abreast of the contemporary books, the HIC has also sought to acquire rare volumes that give a picture of espionage, counterintelligence, and conspiracies from the earliest times. In this connection, Mathew Smith’s Memoirs of Secret Service (London, 1699), is a good example that some things change little. Smith had been an agent of the British crown, but thought his compensation less than warranted. When the Crown disagreed, Smith published his memoirs which the government promptly confiscated and burned. A few copies survived the purge, one is in the HIC.

The oldest item in the collection is a codebook bound in velum and published in Greek and Latin in 1605. More recently, the Revolutionary War holdings, in particular those on Nathan Hale and Major John Andre, are extensive and provide a view of basic intelligence operations when good instincts rather than training were the only prerequisites.


Utilizing the HIC for Present-Day Intelligence Problems

After 9/11 as the focus of interest shifted to Afghanistan, questions about the unchanging Afghan culture and military practices were answered in part by reading Alexander Burnes’ Travels to Bokhara (London: 1834) and the more recent The Great Game by Peter Hopkirk (London: 1990).

When Iranian ‘students’ took over the Embassy in Tehran in 1979 they captured many classified documents. After the hostages were released, the ‘students’ published copies of the documents in book form — English and Persian — in 75 volumes. The HIC also contains copies of these books.


Pieces of History

In certain circumstances the content of a book may not be about intelligence and yet still qualify it for the collection. A prominent example is The Boer War: A History (1902, 32pp.) written by Allen Dulles when he was 7 years old. Published privately by his family, the HIC has one of the few surviving copies.

An equally rare item is the leather bound prayer book that once belonged to Richard Sorge who served Soviet military intelligence in the Orient before World War II. It was given to the collection by a KGB defector who had once worked with Sorge.


Advising Agency Officers

One of the most important functions of today’s HIC is to offer advice on books covering the same topic, as for example, the value of intelligence in Vietnam, or the multiple books on the Robert Hanssen, Aldrich Ames, or John Walker cases. Intelligence officers don’t have time to read them all. The results are often reviewed in the Agency journal, Studies in Intelligence, which is available on the Internet.

About 150-200 intelligence books — in English alone — are published each year. The Historical Intelligence Collection is the place to find them.

Historical Document
Posted: Oct 15, 2009 12:08 PM
Last Updated: Apr 30, 2013 12:17 PM