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Innovations in Intelligence: The U.S. Intelligence Community Before the Cold War

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Alan Cunningham

The Intelligence Community (IC) is among the most important aspects of the national security and defense sectors of the United States. They allow for credible and comprehensive intelligence gathering and analysis for various national and human security threats while keeping the United States well defended from all threats. While the Intelligence Community has succeeded multiple times, including during the Russian Invasion of Ukraine, at providing solid intelligence which aided in the conduct of combat or foreign policy. This was not always the case however.

The field of intelligence was haphazardly and very poorly constructed as well as being dominated by power-hungry and rather devious figures prior to the 1947 National Security Act.

As Phyllis Provost McNeil, a federal prosecutor and Colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves, notes, “prior to the 1880s, intelligence activities were devoted almost exclusively to support of military operations, either to support deployed forces or to obtain information on the views or participation of other countries in a particular conflict”.

This was predominantly controlled by members of the U.S. Army or Navy Intelligence with the Bureau of Investigation (BOI – the precursor to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)) only coming about in 1908 and predominantly taking part in domestic intelligence. As Provost further notes, “At the time the United States entered the [First World] war, it lacked a coordinated intelligence effort. As a champion of open diplomacy, President Woodrow Wilson had disdained the use of spies and was generally suspicious of intelligence,” however, this view changed drastically when war began and the U.S. became closer to their British allies. Many of these units created for wartime were disbanded following victory in Europe, with the only similar agency remaining behind the BOI. It seems to me the creation of a permanent intelligence service, either a law enforcement or civilian version, was not in the minds of many government officials or executive administrations.

The reasoning for this, as veteran Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) analyst and former Asst. Secretary of State for Intelligence and Research Mark Lowenthal notes, was because, “… the United States did not have strong foreign policy interests beyond its immediate borders… The need for better intelligence became apparent only after the United States achieved the status of a world power and became involved in wide-ranging international issues at the end of the nineteenth century”.

To me, intelligence collection, analysis, and the effective combating of foreign penetration or protection of U.S. interests abroad was incredibly minimal prior to the 1947 National Security Act (and really prior to the beginning of the Second World War). Because the U.S. was a much more isolated nation and, because the country was not involved in developing military relationships or becoming engaged in conflicts with other foreign allies, an intelligence service like what has been seen with the CIA or DIA was not necessary. When intelligence was starting to be made a priority though, I feel that the field was predominantly dominated by a power-hungry and Machiavellian figure who made intelligence collaboration or the ability for more intelligence agencies and capabilities to be created near impossible. J. Edgar Hoover was the first and longest-serving director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and, at his death, had turned the agency into his own private police force and dominated the intelligence collection field. When Hoover was appointed director in 1924, he opposed any measure that seemed to be about taking away power from the FBI or limiting the power that the Bureau held over intelligence and counterintelligence matters. His long feud with Wild Bill Donovan (the creator of the Office of Strategic Services and a founding father of the CIA) most likely shaped his later interactions with the CIA and the long-standing policy of not sharing information with fellow agencies was born out of this relationship. This type of attitude still has ramifications today, with intelligence still going unshared between the FBI and the CIA in spite of past massive failures such as the September 11th attacks.

The picture that emerges of intelligence services in the United States prior to the Second World War is one built upon historical precedents and the desire to not become widely involved in foreign affairs or military conflicts, which resulted in only a select few military intelligence agencies that were not considered much when military action was deemed necessary. To further complicate matters, when intelligence became a necessity and was seen as being an important factor in the Cold War and in helping America become an influential power, most of the pre-existing intelligence capabilities was dominated by a single man who sought to gain further power by consolidating his abilities, trying to block further intelligence agencies from sprouting up in the United States, and refused to work with fellow agencies on operations.

The original, initial members of the U.S. Intelligence Community immediately following the National Security Act of 1947 were the Central Intelligence Agency, the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR), the Department of Energy’s Atomic Energy Commission (DOE AEC – a precursor to the DOE’s entire intelligence apparatus), Army Intelligence, U.S. Navy Intelligence, and U.S. Air Force Intelligence. As more units and agencies were developed over time, each one addressed an area or specialty that was deemed important or lacking in the IC.

The Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) was created in 1961 to, “obtain unity of effort among all DoD components in developing military intelligence, and to strengthen DoD’s overall capacity for collecting, producing, and disseminating intelligence information” while the National Security Agency (NSA) was created in 1952, “out of the belief that the importance and distinct character of communications intelligence warranted an organization distinct from both the armed forces and the other intelligence agencies”.

The National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) also was created in 1961, but to serve as a “permanent reconnaissance organization [meant to foster] permanent and institutionalized collaboration between the CIA and Air Force”. These agencies, along with various other entities, divisions, and sections from the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration, Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence with the Department of Treasury, the Office of Intelligence and Analysis of the Department of Homeland Security, and new agencies within the Department of Defense, form the core of what the Intelligence Community is today.

The term Intelligence Community is an interesting one too as it has clearly been a work in process for many years. There was no mention of an Intelligence Community in the original National Security Act of 1947 and the first steps towards a legitimate community body began in 1976 when, “[President Ford] created for the first time the position of Deputy to the Director of Central Intelligence [DDCI] for the Intelligence Community and instructed the DCI [Director of Central Intelligence] to delegate day-to-day operation of the CIA to the [DDCI and] directed the DCI to establish requirements and priorities for intelligence collection, and to combine all “national” intelligence activities into a single budget” while Presidents Carter and Reagan both clarified, “the DCI’s authorities and responsibilities in relation to other elements of the Intelligence Community”. In 1992, the Intelligence Community was defined and given responsibilities by Congress which mirror many of the executive orders given by previous presidencies.

Overall, the Intelligence Community, since 1947, has been an evolving and innovating body, with new agencies being created that address certain oversights within intelligence or new technologies that come about. It should be anticipated that, in the future, specific agencies will be created to combat other new and emerging technologies or to purely focus on intelligence in a more specialized format. Given how threatening misinformation is, it may be a suitable idea for the Intelligence Community to focus on developing a task force or agency that purely focuses on combating such misinformation and disinformation campaigns that come from foreign nations. Something modeled off of the Active Measures Working Group of the U.S. State Department in the 1980s would be an incredible achievement and development that could work to combat all kinds of misinformation, from Russia to China to Iran.