Introduction from the book, The Origins of FBI Counterintelligence
This is the story of how the counterintelligence structure within the U.S. government was organized in the critical years before the Second World War.
It traces how the Federal Bureau of Investigation, a relatively small investigative agency within the Department of Justice, evolved from a law enforcement agency with virtually no counterespionage mandate into the United States’ first organized, sustained counterespionage service; then into the first counterintelligence service; and then into the first organized civilian foreign intelligence service.
To fully understand the narrative, one must first grasp how the term counterintelligence is used in this study.
Throughout history, what we refer to today as counterintelligence was in fact the defense of the realm—an essential element in the protection of the sovereign and the preservation of his power. It was the king’s instrument for maintaining political stability.
His spies remained vigilant for treasonous subjects who might threaten the kingdom’s internal security, as well as for outsiders who slipped into the kingdom unnoticed, seeking information that could benefit foreign enemies.
History is full of stories of what happens to spies and traitors who are caught.
Remember the fate of William Wallace (depicted in the movie Braveheart), who led the Scottish people in a revolt for independence against the British king. For his treachery, he was hung by the neck until near death, then disemboweled and his insides burned, after which he was drawn and quartered and his limbs publicly displayed throughout the kingdom as a warning to anyone with similar inclinations.
Even Shakespeare understood the seriousness of this business: Henry V condemns his three most trusted aides to death for their traitorous acts.
The twentieth century witnessed its own barbarity toward spies. One example was Eli Cohen, a brilliant Israeli spy who penetrated the highest echelons of the Syrian political and military leadership, acquiring priceless information that contributed to Israel’s success in the Golan Heights during the Six-Day War in 1967. Cohen was discovered by Syrian counterintelligence and executed, and his body was left hanging for days in the main square of Damascus, again as a warning.
But what is counterintelligence in the modern sense?
Simply stated, it is the relentless effort of a government to identify; penetrate, and ultimately neutralize the activities of a foreign intelligence service that is attempting to acquire critical political, military, industrial, financial, and economic secrets.
Foreign intelligence officers often work undercover as diplomats assigned to embassies and consulates; even more difficult to ferret out are the espionage agents, intelligence officers, and terrorists who live quietly and anonymously in the United States, blending into the very fabric of society.
To accomplish this mission in today’s world, the government must have a counterintelligence service made up of highly competent, motivated, and trained professionals with the imagination and initiative to pursue often tedious and time-consuming investigations.
For years, the United States had no counterintelligence service. After the First World War and the governmental abuse of civil liberties that followed, this important national security function was shut down.
In effect, for fifteen years the United States had only a weak, unfocused counterintelligence structure and no coherent policies or strategies for dealing with the growing foreign espionage menace.
What follows is an examination of the reemergence of U.S. counterintelligence through the work of a small federal investigative agency with virtually no experience in conventional counterespionage practices.
It traces the factors that led to the sudden awareness of the intelligence threat facing the nation, the reaction to that threat and the steps taken to confront it, and the success that eventually emerged out of some dismal early counterespionage failures.
Among the issues discussed are:
- Tthe challenges faced in developing new coordination guidelines
- The secret and not-so-secret examination of bank and financial records of foreign governments
- The factors leading up to President Franklin Roosevelt’s authorization of FBI foreign counterintelligence wiretapping
- The unique and highly secret foreign assignments undertaken by FBI agents before the Second World War
- The president’s remarkable decision, in the wake of isolationism, to secretly establish and fund this nation’s first organized foreign intelligence service and then dispatch undercover agents to foreign capitals to steal vital secrets—all without Congress’s knowledge or assent.
It concludes with a new look at the case that broke the back of pre-World War II German espionage and prepared the United States’ counterintelligence structure for the wartime challenges it was about to confront.