Spies and Spying

views updated

Spies and Spying

As long as nations have fought wars, they have used spies. During the American Revolution (1775–83), the Connecticut-born Nathan Hale (1755–1776) volunteered to spy on the British. Hale, a soldier in the Continental Army under George Washington (1732–1799), disguised himself as a civilian and infiltrated British lines. He hid documents indicating the strengths and weaknesses of the British army in his shoes. The British captured Hale and found the hidden documents. They hanged the twenty-one-year-old spy on September 22, 1776. Before his death, he uttered the famous line, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.”

Spies in the Civil War (1861–65), for both North and South, were often women. One of the more successful was Union spy Elizabeth Van Lew (1818–1900), of Richmond, Virginia . Van Lew pretended to be eccentric (odd) so that Confederate officials would consider her crazy but not dangerous. She helped prisoners escape from Richmond and gave General Ulysses S. Grant (1822–1885) information that helped him capture the Confederate capital city. Van Lew received much of the information she passed along from a former servant, who, at her suggestion, took a job in the home of Confederate president Jefferson Davis . Van Lew was appointed postmistress of Richmond at the end of the war.

The United States employed spies in both world wars and in the Vietnam War (1954–75) as well. But it was the Cold War (1945–91), a period of great tension and strained relations between the United States and the Soviet Union, that led to one of the most famous cases of American espionage.

Julius Rosenberg (1918–1953) was an electrical engineer who had worked for the U.S. Army . Both Rosenberg and his wife, Ethel Rosenberg (1915–1953), were arrested in 1950 on charges of conspiracy to commit espionage on behalf of the Soviet Union, although there was little evidence implicating Ethel. Historians believe the American government was hoping to use her arrest as leverage to persuade her husband to confess and name other spies.

The trial of the Rosenbergs began in March 1951. American public opinion overwhelmingly held that the two were spies. The jury, along with the public, became convinced that Ethel was the mastermind behind the operation. Both Rosenbergs were found guilty as charged and sentenced to death. They maintained their innocence until their execution, on June 19, 1953. In the decades since, debate has raged over the Rosenbergs' guilt or innocence, as well as over the handling of the prosecution. After the fall of the Soviet Union, documents came to light suggesting that Julius had passed classified military information to the Soviets and had served as the coordinator of a large spy network. Nevertheless, many view their trial as unfair, given the tense political climate during the Cold War, and their death sentence as severe.

The Cold War resulted in massive spying campaigns on the part of both America and the Soviet Union. In 1983 the U.S. government tried five cases, and another fourteen in 1984. Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger (1917–2006) called 1985 “the year of the spy,” because so many arrests for espionage were made that an accurate count could not be given to reporters.

At the center of another famous espionage trial was Alger Hiss (1904–1996), an adviser to the State Department. In 1948 Whittaker Chambers, an admitted member of a Communist spy ring, testified that Hiss was also a member of that ring and had passed secret State Department documents to him in 1938. Hiss denied any wrongdoing. Although he could not be tried for espionage because of a statute of limitations (the charges would have come too many years after the alleged crime), in 1950 he was found guilty on two counts of perjury and served three years in prison.

The CIA, the FBI, and the Military

The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is the intelligence unit of the federal government. Its function is to collect and analyze information about foreign governments, businesses, and individuals so as to advise public policy makers. Some agents of the CIA are spies. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is another government agency that functions as a domestic intelligence agency. Its other purpose is to serve as a federal criminal investigative body. The FBI was a key player in the Red Scare of the 1950s, in which many U.S. citizens were investigated for their alleged ties to the Communist Party.

Espionage and infiltration became particularly threatening to the United States after the al-Qaeda terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001 . Many public officials blamed the CIA for not doing more to prevent the attacks. In 2001 a Strategic Assessments Branch of the CIA's Counterterrorist Center was established to further analyze al-Qaeda. In addition, the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force , Army, and Coast Guard maintain intelligence units for collecting information.