The Office of Strategic Services: Secret Intelligence Branch
With the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the United States entered World War II. In June 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt created the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) – the forerunner of today’s CIA — to collect and analyze strategic information and to conduct espionage and special operations. For the first time in U.S. history, the nation had in the OSS a single intelligence service engaged in all basic secret activities: espionage, covert action, propaganda, and counterintelligence.
The following article is the first in a series that will explore the different branches of the Office of Strategic Services. This article focuses on the Secret Intelligence Branch.
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The Secret Intelligence Branch
When the OSS was created in 1942, its leader Gen. William J. Donovan had not intended for it to be an organization of spies. Donovan originally wanted OSS to support military operations in the field. However, he soon realized the value of clandestine human reporting. The OSS was modeled after British intelligence organizations and consisted of three branches:
- Secret Intelligence (SI) Branch
- Special Operations (SO) Branch
- Morale Operations (MO) Branch
The Secret Intelligence Branch was established to:
- Open field stations,
- Train case officers,
- Run agent operations, and
- Process reports in Washington.
Since the SI Branch was modeled after the Britain’s intelligence services, Donovan sent new OSS agents to the United Kingdom to learn about espionage techniques, covert communications, and secret codes.
Beginning in 1943, Whitney H. Shepardson directed the SI Branch. Under his leadership, the branch created stations in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, as well as liaison contacts and a growing body of operational guidelines.
Allen Dulles in Switzerland
One SI station that made some significant contributions to the war was that created by Allen Dulles in Bern, Switzerland, in November 1942 on “Hitler’s doorstep.”
It did not take Dulles very long to learn about the difficulties and dangers of sending Allied agents into Nazi Germany to gather intelligence; many were quickly apprehended by the Gestapo. However, Dulles found travel restrictions between the Reich and Switzerland much less stringent and began arranging meetings in Switzerland with a variety of Germans. He soon established a wide network composed of German émigrés and resistance figures willing to serve the Allied cause.
Through his various contacts, Dulles learned about the 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler and the development of Hitler’s V-1 and V-2 missiles. He also had contact with German Foreign Ministry officials who fed him information about Nazi foreign policy and military matters.
Perhaps Dulles’ greatest contribution to the war was “Operation Sunrise.” With defeat looming for Nazi Germany, growing unrest among high-ranking German officials prompted some to seek secret contacts with American and British officials to negotiate peace proposals.
At first, American intelligence officers hesitated to enter into such talks due to President Franklin Roosevelt’s “unconditional surrender” policy established during the Casablanca Conference in 1943. They were also reluctant to make a move that might provoke Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, who feared abandonment by the Western Allies.
In spite of these fears, higher authorities in Washington gave Dulles permission to meet with Nazi Gen. Karl Wolff to secretly arrange for the surrender of German troops in Italy. Thus began weeks of secret negotiations. Tension between the West and the Soviet Union complicated the peace talks, while Wolff and other German officials stalled the discussions because they feared discovery and Hitler’s wrath for betraying Nazi Germany.
Finally, on May 2, 1945 — just five days before the collapse of the Axis powers in Europe — German troops in Italy surrendered as a result of the Dulles-Wolff meetings. “Operation Sunrise” was a success, bringing about the end of the Italian campaign and saving thousands of lives.
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