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A Brief History of U.S. Intelligence

Michael Chesbro

A Brief History of U.S. Intelligence
Intelligence has been called the world's second oldest profession, and it is certainly a function that has been employed by all nations and governments since nations and governments have existed. From the spies sent by Moses to "spy out the land of Canaan" (Numbers 13:17 King James Bible), to the advice of Sun Tzu (trans. 1901) to be subtle and "use spies for every kind of business" (chap. 13), the use of intelligence to pursue national and government policies and to extend national strategic influence has been a constant factor throughout history. 
In the United States intelligence has been a function of government since the nation was founded. In a letter to Col. Elias Dayton on July 26, 1777 George Washington wrote:  

“The necessity of procuring good Intelligence is apparent & need not be further urged--all that remains for me to add, is, that you keep the whole matter as secret as possible. For upon Secrecy, Success depends in most Enterprises of the kind, and for want of it, they are generally defeated, however well planned and promising a favorable issue (Central Intelligence Agency, 2007).”  

Even prior to the Revolutionary War, the Second Continental Congress formed the Committee of Secret Correspondence, an intelligence organization which was tasked with obtaining the support from European nations for the independence of the United States (Ford, 1905). The Committee--comprised of Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin Harrison, John Dickinson, John Hay and Robert Morris--was successful in obtaining covert military assistance from France beginning in 1775, followed by an agreement for formal military aid after the American victory at the Battle of Saratoga in October 1777.  

Following American independence, United States intelligence activities varied both in frequency and quality, but were always present to some extent. During the Civil War, both the Confederate and Union armies maintained a military intelligence capability, ran spies across military lines, and intercepted mail and telegram communications. The Civil War even saw the first use of aerial intelligence when Thaddeus S. Lowe, in 1861, pioneered the use of hot air balloons for observation and mapping of military lines (Central Intelligence Agency, 2007a, p.31).  The United States Secret Service was established in 1865, and in 1867 was assigned investigative responsibilities for detecting frauds against the U.S. government (United States Secret Service, 2010). While much of the work of the Secret Service was of a law enforcement nature, there was a clear intelligence and counterintelligence function associated with its duties beginning in 1867. This was particularly evident during the Spanish-American War of 1898, when the U.S. Secret Service was in charge of domestic counterintelligence. Finally in the 1880s both the U.S. Army and the U.S. Navy established formal intelligence divisions, each posting officers in foreign countries with the intent of gathering military information. Both the Army and the Navy's intelligence capabilities have continued forward into the current United States Intelligence Community.

During World War I, the United States’ intelligence capability was diminished from previous years, and was generally less effective for any type of strategic collection. However, it was during this time that the Army's Signal Intelligence Service was established and that the United States established a cryptanalytic capability (Finley, 1995, p.152). The Army's Signal Intelligence Service was the forerunner of what would later become the National Security Agency. 

It was also during World War I that intelligence became an Army staff function with the formation of the Military Intelligence Division, created and led by Major Ralph Van Deman.

Van Deman worked to develop the Military Intelligence Division into a national intelligence service.  He divided intelligence into what he termed positive or active capabilities, and negative or counterintelligence capabilities.

Under the positive side of the Military Intelligence Division, Van Deman established seven sections: MI-1 Administration, MI-2 Information, MI-5 Military Attaches, MI-6 Translations, MI-7 Maps & Photography, MI-8 Codes and Ciphers, and MI-9 Combat Intelligence Instruction.  Under the negative side of the Military Intelligence Division, Van Deman established: MI-3 Counterespionage, MI-4 Foreign Influence, MI-10 News & Censorship, MI-11 Travel Passport and Port Control, and MI-13 Fraud (Finley, 1999).

Van Deman's positive intelligence sections would collect and process information about foreign governments and military services, while his negative or counterintelligence sections would help safeguard the United States against the intelligence capabilities of other nations.  

World War II saw an increase in the United States’ intelligence capabilities and in the establishment of structures that would carry forward to today's Intelligence Community. In July 1941, at the urging of William J. Donovan, President Franklin Roosevelt established the Office of the Coordinator of Information. The Office of the Coordinator of Information was the nation's first peace-time civilian intelligence agency and it was intended to coordinate intelligence information between existing agencies. When the United States entered World War II in December 1941 it was clear that there was a need for a larger and more capable intelligence organization. Thus, in June 1942 the Office of Strategic Services, or OSS, was established. The OSS was the forerunner of today's Central Intelligence Agency and served as a model for much of the early military special operations community. Although the OSS was disbanded following World War II, the government still recognized the need for a central intelligence capability. The National Security Act of 1947 resulted in the creation of the National Security Council and the Central Intelligence Agency. Many members of the OSS joined the newly formed Central Intelligence Agency, bringing with them operational experience and geographic and cultural awareness of both the European and Pacific theaters of war. 

In addition to bringing field experience to the newly formed Central Intelligence Agency, the OSS brought an effective research and analysis section. The research and analysis section was tasked with collecting political, economic and geographic information. In addition, the section maintained a card-catalog of more than three million index cards, over 300,000 photographs, more than one-million maps, 350,000 foreign publications, 50,000 books, and thousands of biographical files and research studies (Liptak, 2009).   

Following the end of World War II the United States entered into the Cold War, a period of political and military tension between the Soviet Union and the Western nations forming the North Atlantic Treaty Organization or NATO. The Cold War resulted in advances in intelligence as each side attempted to gather information and produce intelligence concerning the activities and intentions of its adversary. Problems faced by United States’ intelligence at this time included the vast geographic size of the Soviet Union, the repressiveness of its government, and a general distrust of the West throughout the Soviet Union as a whole. This made it very difficult for the West to gather intelligence through methods that had been traditionally used up to this point, such as human intelligence or HUMINT.  HUMINT is intelligence gathered from human sources.  These sources may be overt sources such as personnel in diplomatic posts or other official contacts in foreign governments, or clandestine sources such as recruited spies who have access to sensitive or classified information. 

In 1956 the United States conducted its first over-flight of the Soviet Union using the newly designed Lockheed U-2 spy plane. This aerial reconnaissance capability provided a vast amount of intelligence concerning the Soviet Union. These U-2 flights continued until February 1960 when the Soviet Union was able to shoot down a U-2 flight piloted by Francis Gary Powers. Powers was captured and put on trial in the Soviet Union, resulting in the United States President Dwight D. Eisenhower suspending all future aerial reconnaissance flights over the Soviet Union (National Reconnaissance Office, n.d.). The United States continued its use of the U-2 in areas other than over the Soviet Union, and also developed the next generation spy plane–the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird—which served as the primary air-breathing aerial reconnaissance aircraft from 1964-1998.

Although aerial reconnaissance aircraft provided an exceptional intelligence benefit, the United States recognized that with a slight advance in technology this surveillance capability could be extended into outer space. In March 1955 the United States Air Force issued a requirement for the development of an advanced reconnaissance satellite. By 1960, the United States had launched the CORONA satellite with an imagery intelligence (IMINT) capability. The CORONA satellites gave the United States broad photographic coverage of the Soviet Union.  In July 1963, the United States also launched the GAMBIT satellite which was able to focus on smaller target areas and provide more detailed photographs. The United States satellite IMINT capability was able to provide information about all major Soviet cities, their submarine bases and military airfields supporting heavy bombers, and identified a significant portion of the Soviet railroad system (Richelson 1995, 296-302). In early 1962, the United States also deployed signals intelligence (SIGINT) capable satellites, under the GRAB/DYNO program.  This gave the United States the capability of intercepting foreign communication from outer space (Richelson, 2012). In August of 1960, the United States established the then-secret National Reconnaissance Office to operate outer space-based intelligence collection.

As technologies continued to advance, new intelligence capabilities were developed and, when necessary, new intelligence agencies—or intelligence elements—within existing agencies were established.  Intelligence is driven by requirements, and operations are ideally driven by intelligence. The need for a centralized intelligence structure in the United States has been recognized at least since 1947 when the National Security Council was established. At the same time it is important to recognize that the Intelligence Community serves two distinct sets of end-users. The Intelligence Community serves the President of the United States and senior policy makers, and the Intelligence Community also serves senior military commanders.  While the military commands through the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff insisted that the armed forces retain their own internal intelligence capabilities. Commanders were concerned that a centralized intelligence structure controlled by the Central Intelligence Agency would not be able to meet the highly specialized requirements of battlefield intelligence. To coordinate the flow of intelligence within the armed forces and to focus on the needs of the warfighter, the Defense Intelligence Agency was established in 1961 (Rosenbach & Peritz 2009).  

In 1972 the Central Security Service was established to coordinate operations between the National Security Agency and the cryptologic functions of other intelligence agencies. The Central Security Service is composed of members of the Army Intelligence and Security Command, the United States Marine Corps Intelligence, the Naval Security Group, the United States Coast Guard Intelligence and Air Force Intelligence, and the Surveillance and Reconnaissance Agency (Clive, 2002).

2. Establishing Today’s United States Intelligence Community

The United States Intelligence Community, in its current form, was officially established by President Ronald Reagan (1981) when he signed Executive Order 12333 on December 4, 1981. In 2012 the United States Intelligence Community consisted of seventeen elements or member agencies. Each of these separate agencies operated independently, but with the common goal of enhancing U.S. national and homeland security. The 17 members of the Intelligence Community were:

  • Air Force Intelligence
  • Army Intelligence
  • Central Intelligence Agency
  • Coast Guard Intelligence
  • Defense Intelligence Agency
  • Department of Energy
  • Department of Homeland Security
  • Department of State
  • Department of the Treasury
  • Drug Enforcement Administration
  • Federal Bureau of Investigation
  • Marine Corps Intelligence
  • National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency
  • National Reconnaissance Office
  • National Security Agency
  • Navy Intelligence
  • Office of the Director of National Intelligence 


These member agencies collect and analyze information about foreign nations, identify hostile organizations, such and terrorist groups, and track threat activity, such as international narcotic trafficking.  They also work to identify and counter hostile foreign intelligence activity directed against the United States. At the same time, Intelligence Community functions and activities are continuously adjusted to respond to changing threats and varying intelligence needs. 

The Department of Homeland Security–itself a member of the Intelligence Community—was established on November 25, 2002 as a direct result of the terrorist attacks against the United States on September 11, 2001.  The Department of Homeland Security integrated all or part of 22 separate Federal departments, and is comprised of several other formerly independent agencies, including:

  • Transportation Security Administration
  • U.S. Customs and Border Protection
  • U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services
  • U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement
  • U.S. Secret Service
  • Federal Emergency Management Agency
  • U.S. Coast Guard


3. The Department of Homeland Security Organizational Chart - 2010

The Intelligence Community is composed of Federal agencies, but it is also connected to each state and major urban area through Fusion Centers. These Fusion Centers serve as a focal point within each state for the collection, analysis, and dissemination of intelligence, and provide a connection between Federal agencies and their counterparts in state, local, and tribal governments, and within the private sector (Department of Homeland Security, 2012). Fusion Centers allow "law enforcement, public safety, and private entities [to] embrace a collaborative process to improve intelligence sharing and, ultimately, increase the ability to detect, prevent, and solve crimes while safeguarding our homeland" (Department of Justice, 2006, p.2).  

4. Homeland Security Intelligence
Homeland security intelligence (HSINT) focuses on "getting accurate, actionable, and timely intelligence to officers in our hometowns so they know who and what to look for in order to prevent the next 9/11" (U.S. House of Representatives, Committee on Homeland Security. 2009, p.2). At the Federal level, a great deal of homeland security intelligence is coordinated by the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis. This coordination reaches out to the state and local levels through the fusion centers located in each state and in many major urban areas.

HSINT has been a concept since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 (9/11) and formalized since at least 2004 when the Director of National Intelligence, John Negroponte, stated that “bolstering intelligence support for homeland security” was a priority objective of the Intelligence Community (Randol 2009). Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff summed this up when he stated:

“Intelligence, as you know, is not only about spies and satellites. Intelligence is about the thousands and thousands of routine, everyday observations and activities. Surveillance, interactions—each of which may be taken in isolation as not a particularly meaningful piece of information, but when fused together, gives us a sense of the patterns and the flow that really is at the core of what intelligence analysis is all about ... . We (DHS) actually generate a lot of intelligence ... we have many interactions every day, every hour at the border, on airplanes, and with the Coast Guard (Randol, 2009, p.5).”

Defense intelligence has developed new requirements, which directly support HSINT, as the military is more frequently deployed on non-combat missions. This has increased the need for strong cooperation between the deploying military forces, the Department of State, and the Central Intelligence Agency. These military deployments have also benefited the National Intelligence Programs because clandestine defense intelligence activities conducted under military orders do not require Congressional notification and oversight approval (Rosenbach & Peritz, 2009). The use of defense intelligence assets during non-combat missions plays an important role in enhancing homeland security. This is especially true in counter-drug operations and counter-terrorism operations. The National Counter-Terrorism Center, for example, brings together more than thirty military, intelligence, law enforcement and homeland security agencies, and provides information that is used by more than seventy-five other government agencies (National Counter-Terrorism Center, 2011).

The FBI retains primary responsibility for domestic intelligence. Unlike many other countries, the United States does not have a domestic intelligence agency. This has led to concerns that the domestic intelligence functions conducted by the FBI are given less priority than the FBI’s primary function of law enforcement. Jackson, et.al. (2009) pointed out that law enforcement agencies and intelligence agencies perform their duties in distinctly different ways, and have different primary focuses. Because of this there has been strong argument in favor of creating a domestic intelligence agency within the United States. Judge Richard A. Posner of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit argued the need for a domestic intelligence agency similar to British MI5 or the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, stressing the need for an agency to be highly focused on the threat from domestic terrorism and radical extremism within the United States (Posner & Kayyem 2006).     

Advancing technologies have added agencies and functions to the Intelligence Community. The development of radio communication led to the creation of the Army's Signal Intelligence Service. Deploying intelligence collection platforms into outer space resulted in the creation of the National Reconnaissance Office. The need for greater accuracy in mapping led to the establishment of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA). The need for military capabilities in these areas and the need to conduct intelligence operations in cyberspace lended itself to the creation of the Air Force Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Agency. As technology continues to advance and new capabilities are developed, those technologies and capabilities will be added to the Intelligence Community.   

5. Conclusions
The United States has always maintained an intelligence capability in order to support national defense and project strategic influence. The structure and capabilities of the United States Intelligence Community has changed over time, and will continue to progress, develop, and grow in order to meet new intelligence challenges and take advantage of changing technology. Today’s Intelligence Community has responsibilities for ensuring both national defense and homeland security. The information collected by the agencies of the Intelligence Community and the intelligence produced and disseminated by these agencies makes for a stronger nation and a safer homeland.



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Figure 1. (2009). Intelligence Community. Retrieved from https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/additional-publications/the-work-of-a-nation/cia-and-the-ic.html
Figure 2. (2010). Department of Homeland Security Organizational Chart. Retrieved from http://www.dhs.gov/xabout/structure/editorial_0644.shtm 


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