views updated


SPIES are individuals who covertly collect information otherwise not readily available. HUMINT (overt and covert human intelligence) has drawn much public and scholarly attention, although TECHINT (technical intelligence, such as communications, signals, electronics, and image intelligence) is the mainstay of information gathered by intelligence communities today. Particularly in the twentieth century, intelligence collection by individuals constituted only a fraction of the information collected by intelligence gathering agencies, and spies were in most cases considered a last resort to obtain pivotal information.

Revolutionary Period

U.S. history is rich with spies but not with effective intelligence organizations, even though the first espionage network was created before the United States declared independence. The Committees of Safety and the Committees of Correspondence established in the colonies served as intelligence and counterintelligence agencies. They prevented the infiltration of patriot circles by loyalists, broke the code of enciphered British messages, and provided information about impending British activities against the Patriots before the first shot was fired in this conflict. During the Revolutionary War, intelligence facilitated the American victory in more than one way.

George Washington, then commander of the Continental Army, employed spies, relied on intelligence his female and male agents provided, and engaged in deception and disinformation. One of Washington's agents, Nathan Hale, became the most famous patriot spy of the Revolutionary War. Posing as an art teacher, Hale infiltrated British-controlled Long Island. Without contacts among the local population, no means of communication, and scanty logistics, however, his ill-prepared mission ended in his capture and execution. Many other less renowned agents who helped the revolutionary cause provided a wealth of valuable information to Washington. Posing as loyalists, these were merchants, innkeepers, servants, and farmers who lived and worked where British troops were stationed. They had legitimate reason to be in places where information about troop movements, supplies, and morale could be collected and then forwarded to the Continental Army. Information provided by spies, and particularly by small intelligence cells working behind enemy lines, proved pivotal in a large number of military engagements during the war.

The most notorious spy working for the British during the Revolutionary War was Benedict Arnold. A "walkin," he defected to the British because of dissatisfaction with being passed over for promotion and because of greed. In 1780 he offered to betray West Point for £20,000 sterling. When his British contact, Major John André, was caught with incriminating documents, Arnold fled on a British ship. Made a brigadier general, he then served on the British side to defeat a cause he had once ardently supported.

Despite Washington's reliance on spies, no organizational structure for intelligence collection was set up after 1783. This did not preclude the United States from using intelligence to pursue its expansion across the continent. A broad definition of the termspy would include Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, for example, a more narrow one the Native American scouts employed by the U.S. Army and the Hispanic agents during the war with Mexico (1846–1848). Although the Civil War would have provided optimal terrain for espionage—with a large number of potential agents in place knowing the habits, speaking the language, and with reasons to be on location—spies were used less than during the Revolution. The most illustrious spy of that period is Belle Boyd, who provided occasional intelligence for Confederate generals Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson and Turner Ashby and who made a living telling her story after the conflict.

Intelligence Organizations

When the United States turned to maritime commercial expansion after the Civil War, it became obvious that information about other nations and their naval forces was skimpy at best. The Office of Naval Intelligence was created in 1882 to address this lack of information, and the army followed in 1885 by establishing the Military Information Division (MID—later G-2 of the War Department General Staff). In 1888 service attachés joined American missions abroad and collected information on foreign armies and navies. Intelligence collected by these offices and by individual sources played a part in American territorial acquisitions and military engagements, particularly in the case of Hawaii, the Panama Canal, and the Spanish-American War of 1898.

During World War I a spy-scare ran high in the United States, particularly after German-paid activities committed by saboteurs and strikers had surfaced, and even President Woodrow Wilson feared that the United States was infested with German spies. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) was charged with counterintelligence operations in the United States, but at the front in Europe, American combat intelligence had to rely mostly on British and French sources. The increased use of communications technology, beginning with the telegraph, shifted the emphasis of intelligence collection to technical intelligence, to cryptography and code breaking. Although the Americans were latecomers to this field, they created a valuable Code and Cipher Section within the MID. After the war had ended in 1918, this section was the nucleus of the so-called "American Black Chamber," headed by Herbert O. Yardley from 1919 until it was closed down in 1929 by President Herbert Hoover's secretary of state, Henry L. Stimson, who strongly disapproved of spying.

Thus, when Japanese forces bombed Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941 the United States had been virtually without warning from its intelligence services. Some Japanese codes had been broken, but understaffed and ill coordinated intelligence services within different departments, reliance on communications intelligence, and the lack of HUMINT from Japan had prevented the United States from learning about the imminent attack. Communications intelligence and the U.S. Navy's success in breaking Japanese codes, code-named MAGIC, did play an important part during World War II, as did the information the British Allies supplied after breaking the encryption, code-named ULTRA, used by the Germans on their Enigma cipher machines. But the United States also took steps to create a centralized agency to provide, coordinate, and analyze intelligence. To this end, President Franklin D. Roosevelt formed the Office of the Coordinator of Information on 11 July 1941. However, that attempt failed, and in June 1942, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) was created, with William J. Donovan as director. With stations around the globe, it collected overt information, ran thousands of agents, and conducted covert operations behind enemy lines and in occupied territory. One of the most efficient station chiefs was Allen W. Dulles in Bern, who had contacts with the German resistance.

The OSS was disbanded at the end of World War II but was soon succeeded by the Central Intelligence Group, created by President Harry S. Truman in January 1946. While the OSS had been under the direction and supervision of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the director of central intelligence was head of a civilian agency reporting to a National Intelligence Authority composed of the secretaries of navy, war, and state. With the passage of the National Security Act of 1947, the Central Intelligence Agency was established. Under the supervision of the president, it was to provide the National Security Council with national and strategic intelligence. The deputy director for plans (later deputy director for operations) of the CIA was to be responsible for the clandestine collection of intelligence, a task that proved to be of major importance during the Cold War. Running spy nets in close-knit societies such as the Soviet Union, North Korea, and Cuba, however, turned out to be quite difficult. Because internal security and counterintelligence in these countries was usually operating very well, the United States dramatically increased its TECHINT capabilities to make up for the lack of HUMINT. The photographing of missile launch sites by U-2 planes during the Cuban Missile Crisis clearly demonstrated the advantages of technical intelligence. However, the Bay of Pigs fiasco proved the need for intelligence collected by spies, who might have made clear that the large-scale Cuban resistance movement the CIA counted on for the success of its invasion did not exist. The main targets of American intelligence since the Soviet Union broke apart in the late 1980s are so-called "rogue states" and international terrorism, both of which are quite difficult to penetrate. Here, the United States increasingly has to rely on sharing of clandestine information, particularly within the North Atlantic community.

Spies who operate successfully, with a few exceptions, are unlikely to reveal themselves. But those that have been detected provide a good indication why an individual may choose to take up a dangerous occupation that might end in execution or at least a long prison sentence. Some have ideological reasons, such as Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, arrested in 1950, who provided the Soviet Union with information about nuclear weapons, or Jonathan Pollard, a U.S. Navy intelligence officer with high-level security clearance, who gave secret information to Israel. Others were blackmailed or lured into spying, or they did it because they fell in love with a spy. In many instances, as in the case of Benedict Arnold, greed provided a driving force: Charged with providing secret information to the Soviet Union, John A. Walker Jr. ran a lucrative family spy ring for nearly twenty years. Aldrich Ames, a CIA career official arrested in 1994, revealed to the Soviet Union a large number of covert operations and agents, many of whom were later executed, for more than $2 million. And the first case of espionage in the twenty-first century in the United States has a similar background: Robert P. Hanssen, an FBI agent working in counterintelligence, was arrested in February 2001. From 1985 on, for more than $1 million in cash and diamonds, he had given away the identities of U.S. spies in the Soviet Union, information on highly classified eavesdropping technology, and nuclear war plans.


Ameringer, Charles D. U.S. Foreign Intelligence: The Secret Side of American History. Lexington, Mass.: Lexington Books, 1990.

Bakeless, John. Turncoats, Traitors, and Heroes: Espionage in the American Revolution. 1959. New York: Da Capo, 1998.

Dulles, Allen W. The Craft of Intelligence. New York: Harper and Row, 1963.

Melton, H. Keith. The Ultimate SPY Book. New York: DK, 1996.

O'Toole, George J. A. The Encyclopedia of American Intelligence and Espionage: From the Revolutionary War to the Present. New York: Facts on File, 1988.

Polmar, Norman, and Thomas B. Allen. Spy Book: The Encyclopedia of Espionage. New York: Random House, 1998.


See alsoCentral Intelligence Agency ; Intelligence, Military and Strategic ; Office of Strategic Services .