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Intelligence, Military and Political

Intelligence, Military and Political. Intelligence is often referred to as the “second oldest profession,” but for the United States, intelligence is still a relative newcomer as an accepted government function. The United States has been largely free of proximate security threats for much of its history. This fact, and the ongoing lessons from the founders about the dangers of large standing armies, meant that intelligence activities played little role in U.S. history until the mid‐twentieth century.

The term intelligence, as used here, means two significant functions, one large and one small. The large function is the collection, analysis, and dissemination of relevant national security information. The smaller function is covert activities—a broad range of actions intended to influence events overseas with the role of the United States either unknown or at least plausibly denied. This is a very small part of intelligence in terms of manpower and budget, although it proved extremely important politically during the Cold War.

Prehistory: The Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries.

The founders were not unaware of the uses and practice of intelligence. The European state system of which they had been an imperial appendage had a long history of secret agents and spies by the time the American Revolution began. Many of these practices had been carried over to the New World. Indeed, George Washington's famous mission into the Ohio wilderness as a young officer in 1754 was both a diplomatic and a reconnaissance expedition.

The Revolutionary War benefited from a number of intelligence practices. Washington, as a commander, understood the utility of espionage and employed spies. As is always the case, their success and veracity varied widely. (The most famous and unfortunate American spy, Nathan Hale, was a poor collector of accurate intelligence.) The Continental Congress had a Committee of Secret Correspondence to maintain communications with those in Europe (including some in Britain) who might be friendly to the American cause. Finally, prior to official diplomatic recognition in 1778, France clandestinely supplied crucial arms via what would be called today a “front company.”

As with much else, President Washington established important precedents for U.S. intelligence. At his request, Congress supported what became known as the Secret Service Fund, which at one point amounted to 12 percent of the federal budget. Presidents had to certify the amounts they spent, but did not have to state the purposes, which were widely acknowledged to be intelligence‐related.

During the nineteenth century, what little U.S. intelligence activity occurred largely meant wartime tactical reconnaissance. Intelligence played little role beyond that during the War of 1812 or the Mexican War. During the Civil War, both sides employed spies, to little effect. The Union achieved one short‐lived technological breakthrough: airborne reconnaissance via balloons. Although these had some success in increasing the range of the commander's vision, the experiment was abandoned mid‐war. The Army of the Potomac created a Bureau of Military Intelligence in 1863, which the historian Christopher Andrews credits with having made some contribution to Union victory by its ability to give accurate information as to The Confederate forces' strength and movement.

The first U.S. military attaché—an officer accredited abroad to collect information overtly—was a naval officer posted overseas in 1872. The first standing U.S. intelligence components were created in the 1880s: the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) in 1882 and the army's Military Intelligence Division (MID) in 1885. Both were small and largely devoted to collecting data that might be relevant in time of war. These can also be seen as part of a larger military trend then prevalent in Europe, the growing appreciation of the value of a more coherent military staff that was highlighted by Prussia's recent victories.

The prehistory of U.S. intelligence ended with the successful covert action (a not overly indigenous revolution) that created an independent Panama in 1903: the province successfully broke away from Colombia under the auspices of President Theodore Roosevelt, so that the United States could obtain what became the Canal Zone.

The Early Twentieth Century: 1903–40.

In the early part of World War I, the United States—the most influential neutral power—was essentially an intelligence target of both Britain and Germany. A British intelligence success helped shift much U.S. opinion away from cherished neutrality. British codebreakers intercepted and deciphered Germany's offer of support and territorial spoils to Mexico should Mexico go to war with the United States, the famous Zimmermann telegram.

Once the United States entered the war, its predominant intelligence concerns were related to supporting eventual combat operations in France. There were two notable precedents: the beginning of U.S.‐British intelligence cooperation, the famous “special relationship” and the beginning of U.S. signals intelligence (SIGINT), with the creation of a code and cipher unit in 1917 under the legendary Herbert Yardley.

The postwar period also saw two important devel opments. First, despite the usual demobilization, Yardley's interception and codebreaking efforts survived as the Cipher Bureau—more familiarly called the “Black Chamber”—funded jointly by the State and War Departments. Second, the infamous Red Scare led to the creation of a General Intelligence Division within the Justice Department's Bureau of Investigation, the forerunner of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), which was created in 1935.

The Black Chamber contributed to a major U.S. diplomatic, rather than military, success. Having broken Japanese diplomatic codes, Yardley gave the U.S. delegation at the Washington Naval Conference (1921–22) the details of Japan's naval limits negotiating position, a striking coup. However, as U.S. interest in international issues waned, so did support for the Black Chamber. In 1929, Secretary of State Henry L. Stimson shut it down (with the probably apocryphal comment: “Gentlemen do not read each other's mail”). Army codebreaking efforts continued, and were enlarged and consolidated with the Signal Intelligence Service (SIS), created in 1930.

Codebreaking remained the mainstay of pre–World War II intelligence efforts. SIS cracked Japan's diplomatic PURPLE code in 1940; the resulting decoded messages were called MAGIC. The army and navy also continued to use attachés abroad, but these officers were often chosen more for their social skills than for their acuity as intelligence collectors.

World War II.

The outbreak of war in Europe in 1939 (preceded by undeclared war in Asia in 1937) revealed once again the paucity of U.S. intelligence. President Franklin D. Roosevelt relied on his own network of well‐traveled friends, including attorney William Donovan, for international information. Under British tutelage, Donovan became convinced of the need for a central intelligence organization to handle collection, analysis, and operations. Roosevelt was more cautious, designating Donovan Coordinator of Information (COI), with the vague charter to collect and analyze information bearing on national security. Donovan ambitiously made the most of this, but faced rival organizations, predominantly in the military.

Pearl Harbor has become synonymous with the often overused but in this case apt phrase “intelligence failure.” U.S. intelligence efforts were too disparate and disunited across the government, making it impossible to derive a coherent picture; analysts falsely “mirror‐imaged” Japanese behavior and underestimated their capabilities; in telligence dissemination was deeply flawed. Anticipating blows in Southeast Asia, Washington was caught completely by surprise with the actual attack on Pearl Harbor.

The sudden advent of war saw a new intelligence turf battle. The military rapidly built up all functions, including intelligence. This imperiled the COI, but Donovan was a bureaucratic survivor. In 1942, his office became the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), which retained the collection and analysis functions and gained the task of planning and conducting “special services”—i.e., covert operations. The military remained opposed to a separate intelligence entity and had OSS placed under the jurisdiction of the newly formed Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS). The OSS‐JCS relationship remained difficult throughout the war. Interestingly, OSS emerged from the war with a legendary reputation for operational prowess, although these operations had little effect on the war's outcome. OSS's analytical efforts were also modest contributors, competing with both military intelligence and the FBI. Still, the OSS served one important intelligence function as the training academy for many who shaped the postwar intelligence community.

SIGINT played a much greater role in the Allied victory. MAGIC, once the Japanese naval codes were broken in 1942, was central to U.S. victories at the Battle of Midway and elsewhere in the Pacific, just as Britain's ULTRA, the deciphering of German military codes—shared with the United States—helped to defeat Germany in the Atlantic, North Africa, and in Europe.

The Modern Intelligence Community.

President Harry S. Truman disbanded OSS one month after Japan surrendered, dispersing analysis to the State Department and some operations to the army. The future of U.S. intelligence became part of the larger debate over the entire national security apparatus, largely prompted by wartime studies to unite the military departments.

Truman became increasingly unhappy with intelligence reporting, finding it difficult to make sense of conflicting reports and analyses. In 1946, he created a Central Intelligence Group under a Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) to improve coordination among the disparate reports. Devoid of any institutional base, however, the DCI found this hard to do.

In 1947, the National Security Act became law. This established a National Security Council (NSC), to coordinate civilian and military policy; placed the DCI under the NSC, and replaced the CIG with a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) under the DCI to coordinate intelligence. The military was adamant, however, that each service maintain its own individual intelligence office despite the creation of the new CIA. (The military services also held to this position in 1961, when Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara created the Defense Intelligence Agency, hoping to consolidate defense intelligence activities. The service's resistance limited the extent of this consolidation.)

Truman envisioned the CIA as a coordinator, not a new intelligence producer or operator. But the CIA's legislative charter was vague, including the mandate to perform “such other functions and duties related to intelligence” as required by the NSC. A combination of unwillingness by other agencies to undertake broader analyses (rather than that written for one department only) or operations of any sort, coupled with a more bureaucratically aggressive CIA leadership willing to fill these gaps, quickly broadened the CIA's role.

Policymaker demands for current intelligence reports and longer‐range estimates gave CIA entree into analysis. Operations—i.e., covert action—began as a means of resisting Soviet advances in Europe. Gen. Walter Bedell Smith, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower's wartime chief of staff, became DCI in 1950, shortly after the surprise outbreak of war in Korea. Smith capitalized on these trends in analysis and operations, solidifying the CIA into the agency familiar throughout the Cold War.

In 1952, Truman created the National Security Agency (NSA) via a secret directive. NSA was charged with the protection of U.S. encoded communications and the interception and breaking of foreign ones, the lineal descendant of Yardley's early SIGINT efforts.

It is likely that, given the United States's postwar global responsibilities, an intelligence community of some sort would have been created. It is less debatable, however, that the Cold War greatly gave shape and form to U.S. intelligence.

Having opposed creation of the CIA, the military now found it useful, despite lingering rivalries. Military services warning of growing Soviet strength could appear self‐ serving; a national estimate from the CIA raising a similar concern had the advantage of appearing bureaucratically neutral.

But bureaucratic neutrality did not translate into political neutrality. Politicians in both parties used intelligence (or their version of it) about alleged Soviet strength for partisan means. The late 1940s and early 1950s saw the “bomber gap” debate. More illustrative and strikingly similar were the next two “gap” debates. In the early 1960s, Democrats—then out of power—charged that the United States suffered from a “missile gap.” In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Republicans—also out of power—warned about a strategic “window of vulnerability.” These were seen as legitimate issues in the presidential elections of 1960 and 1980. In both elections, interestingly, those raising the alarms won, only to declare the problem solved once they took office.

These repeated debates led some critics to conclude that the intelligence community (read CIA) was an intellectual pawn of the military, creating false alarms to justify larger defense budgets. This view was unrealistic, at least bureaucratically, since the CIA was a competitor with the Department of Defense for national security dollars. Still, the legend remained—even among some senior officials, such as Secretary of Defense McNamara.

The tremendous growth of intelligence‐related technology was a boon for both intelligence and the military. SIGINT and photoimage intelligence (IMINT) first by U‐2 spy planes and then by satellites, not only greatly improved strategic warning, but helped give a better—albeit always incomplete—view of Soviet capabilities. One goal of U.S. Cold War diplomacy—often successful—was placing intelligence technical collection sites in nations bordering the USSR, just as orbiting improved intelligence collection satellites was a major goal of the U.S. space program.

Increased use of covert action was another Cold War intelligence feature. Proponents of covert action customarily defend this option as a necessary choice between doing nothing and using armed force. But covert action has proved to be a difficult instrument to use. In general, the closer the covert action supported a very specific overt policy goal and the more tightly focused were the operation's goals, the more likely the operation would be successful. U.S.‐abetted coups in Guatemala and Iran were successful—at least in the near to medium term (as much as twenty‐five years). But large‐scale paramilitary operations such as the abortive Bay of Pigs or the contra effort in Nicaragua were not. These operations tended to be extremely difficult to keep covert, given their scope; extremely difficult for the United States to claim “plausible deniability,” and difficult to sustain politically if they dragged on too long. Paramilitary operations also raised issues for the CIA. Was the CIA competent to undertake such efforts or would it be of greater propriety or legality for the Defense Department to do so? Could CIA analysts provide unbiased assessments of situations in which the CIA was also supporting one faction via paramilitary operations?

Vietnam became the Cold War crucible for the entire national security community. Frustration over the inability to bring the Vietnam War to a successful conclusion led to fissures between intelligence providers and policy customers. The infamous “order of battle” dispute—in which Defense analysts took issue with CIA estimates showing higher numbers of enemy troops, as these undercut claims of operational success in the field—typified both the overquantification of the war and the inapplicability of U.S. military resources.

Vietnam undermined the Cold War national security political consensus. The end of the war in 1975 was quickly followed by a series of revelations about and investigations of the intelligence community, detailing how agencies (CIA, NSA, FBI) had violated the limits of their charters, engaged in questionable activities at home and abroad, and had had insufficient executive and congressional oversight. From then on, the intelligence community could never return to its cloak of relative obscurity. Indeed, new intelligence‐related revelations or scandals became a recurrent feature.

The Cold War continued for another fifteen years. President Ronald Reagan espoused a never fully defined Reagan Doctrine that sought to reverse the Cold War pattern, making the Soviets and their allies pay the price of overseas involvement against guerrilla warfare supported by U.S. intelligence operations. This policy was successful in Afghanistan, important in Angola, but inconclusive and very costly politically in the case of the contras in Nicaragua.

The vagueness at the core of the Cold War—a dogged and deadly serious competition that never erupted into outright, direct hostilities—makes it difficult to assess the factors that contributed to the U.S. victory, including the role played by intelligence. The key issue for many is the degree to which the intelligence community predicted or failed to predict the collapse of the Soviet Union. Critics observe that the very ability to track Soviet military in detail ultimately gave a false picture of Soviet strength obscuring the underlying economic and social weakness. Others note, more favorably, that intelligence had increasing knowledge of the systemic Soviet failure and the restiveness of nominal allies. But these warnings were not the same as a bold prediction that a positive end to the Cold War was in sight—although this may not have been predictable, even to the Soviet leadership.

The end of the Cold War also gave rise to familiar demands for a decrease in national security spending. Cuts in military and intelligence spending began even as political leaders came to appreciate that the post–Cold War world was less threatening but perhaps more complex than the old bipolar struggle had been.

The Persian Gulf War created new strains for intelligence and for its relationship with the military. Critics charged that U.S. surprise at Iraq's invasion of Kuwait was another “intelligence failure.” Successful prosecution of Operation Desert Storm in 1991 revealed a number of new intelligence‐related contributions: precise targeting information allowed the use of “smart” weapons that increase the likelihood of a “kill” while minimizing collateral damage; and “information warfare,” the ability to attack important technological nodes—finance, utilities, communications, security—via computers, thus disrupting enemy efforts silently at their centers. Military intelligence professionals describe this as a major shift: they have gone from combat support to combatant. There were also intelligence problems: the “battle damage assessment” debate between the field command and Washington‐based analysts; difficulties (largely technical in nature) in disseminating the right intelligence information to the right user when needed; and, in a debate that continued for years after the war, whether the CIA was explicit enough in detailing the location of Iraqi chemical weapons sites to U.S. troops sent to destroy them, perhaps resulting in chemical exposure and “Gulf War syndrome.”

On the verge of the twenty‐first century, intelligence is being asked to contribute to a new—and still debated—military doctrine: “dominant battlefield awareness.” Proponents argue that technology now allows commanders to have intelligence about the battlefield in such depth and detail as greatly to reduce the size of forces and likely casualties. Critics wonder whether this degree of knowledge is realistically attainable, what effect it will have on competing demands for intelligence resources both within the military and with nonmilitary national security users, and whether it is necessary. At one level, the debate is part of an ongoing evolutionary relationship; at another, it reflects how intelligence technology is once again sparking potential changes in combat doctrine.
[See also Chemical and Biological Weapons and Warfare; Cold War: External Course; Cold War: Domestic Course; Counterintelligence; Nicaragua, U.S. Military Involvement in; Panama, U.S. Military Involvement in.]


Herbert O. Yardley , The American Black Chamber, 1931.
U.S. Army Intelligence Center and School, Fort Huachuca , Evolution of American Intelligence, 1973.
Jeffrey M. Dorwart , The Office of Naval Intelligence, 1865–1918, 1979.
Thomas F. Troy , Donovan and the CIA: A History of the Establishment of the Central Intelligence Agency, 1981.
James Bamford , The Puzzle Palace: A Report on America's Most Secret Agency, 1982.
Bruce Bidwell , History of the Military Intelligence Division, Department of the Army General Staff, 1986.
William E. Burrows , Deep Black: Space Espionage and National Security, 1986.
John Ranelagh , The Agency: The Rise and Decline of the CIA, 1987.
Bruce W. Watson, Susan M. Watson, and Gerald W. Hopple, eds., United States Intelligence: An Encyclopedia, 1990.
Mark M. Lowenthal , U.S. Intelligence: Evolution and Anatomy, 1984; 2nd ed. 1992.
Christopher Andrews , For the President's Eyes Only, 1995.

Mark M. Lowenthal

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