An Overview of American Intelligence
until World War II
|George Washington conferring
with one of his agents.
Espionage, counterintelligence, and covert action have been important
tools of U.S. political leaders since the founding of the Republic. During
the Revolutionary War, General George 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 foreign governments.
America's founders all agreed with General Washington that the "necessity
of procuring good intelligence is apparent and need not be further urged...[U]pon
Secrecy, Success depends in Most Enterprizes...and for want of it, they
are generally defeated..."
Presidents in the early Republic were actively involved in intelligence
activities especially covert actions. In his first State of the
Union message, Washington requested that Congress establish a "secret
service fund" for clandestine activities. Within two years the fund represented
over ten percent of the federal budget. Thomas Jefferson drew on it to
finance the United State's first covert attempt to topple a foreign government,
one of the Barbary Pirate States, in 1804-05. It failed. James Madison
employed agents of influence and clandestine paramilitary forces in trying
to acquire territory in the Florida region from Spain during 1810-12.
Several presidents dispatched undercover agents on espionage missions
overseas. One spy, disguised as a Turk, obtained a copy of a treaty between
the Ottoman Empire and France. Also during this period, Congress first
tried to exercise oversight of the secret fund, but President James K.
Polk rebuffed the lawmakers, saying, "The experience of every nation on
earth has demonstrated that emergencies may arise in which it becomes
absolutely necessary…to make expenditures, the very object of which
would be defeated by publicity."
|Chief of the Balloon
Corps, Thaddeus Lowe, observes the Battle of Fair Oaks from
the "Intrepid" in 1862.
In the Civil War both 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,
high-level military intelligence service. The North's 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. Three of
the South's most celebrated agents were women Rose Greenhow, Belle
Boyd, and Nancy Hart. In 1864 Confederate operatives tried to organize
antiwar elements in Indiana, Illinois, and Ohio into a secession movement,
and set a rash of fires in New York City in an attempt to burn it down.
Northern and 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 attaches in several major
European cities principally for open-source collection. When the Spanish-American
War broke out in 1898, the attaches 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. One U.S. 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.
When World War I started in 1914, the United States' ability to collect
foreign intelligence had shrunk drastically because of budget cuts and
bureaucratic reorganizations. The State Department began small-scale operations
against the Central Powers in 1916, but not until the United States declared
war on Germany in 1917 did Army and Navy intelligence receive infusions
of personnel and money too late to increase their intelligence
output correspondingly. The most 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
interdicted numerous German covert actions inside the United States that
included psychological warfare, political and economic operations, and
dozens of acts of sabotage against British-owned firms and factories supplying
munitions to Britain and Russia. The Justice 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.
cracked Japan's "Purple" machine in1941.
Between the wars, American Intelligence officers concentrated on codebreaking
and counterintelligence operations against Germany and Japan. Notwithstanding
Secretary of State Henry Simson's alleged dictum that "gentlemen do not
read each other's mail," by 1941 the United States had built a world-class
signals intelligence capability. The "Black Chamber" under Herbert Yardley,
the Army's Signal 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" machine. During the 1930s, the FBI
launched an extremely effective counterintelligence attack on German and
Japanese espionage and sabotage operations in the Western Hemisphere,
infiltrating many networks and arresting dozens of agents. The Bureau
had less success against Soviet efforts to penetrate U.S. governmental
and economic institutions.
As American 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 to organize
the activities of several agencies. Soon after, however, the United States
suffered its most costly intelligence disaster ever when the Japanese
bombed Pearl Harbor. 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.