The Cold War Intelligence Gathering

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U-2 spy plane.

Intelligence gathering became a permanent and major part of the national security apparatus during the Cold War, with large intelligence organizations operating at quasi-wartime levels on a continuous basis. Yet a massive expansion of American intelligence gathering did not appear likely when World War II ended. Pres. Harry S. Truman, who distrusted peacetime intelligence organizations, dissolved the OSS in October 1945. Within a few months, however, Truman recognized a need for a centralized intelligence system. After several tentative attempts to establish an organization that would plan, develop, and coordinate all federal intelligence activities, the National Security Act of 1947 created the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The law charged the CIA with coordinating the nation’s intelligence activities and collecting, evaluating, and disseminating intelligence affecting national security. It also prohibited the CIA from engaging in law enforcement and restricted its internal security functions. The 1949 Central Intelligence Agency Act permitted the CIA to employ confidential fiscal and administrative procedures similar to those used to keep intelligence spending secret since the American Revolution.

The Department of Defense was concurrently moving to centralize signals intelligence (such as eavesdropping and code breaking). In 1949, it established the Armed Forces Security Agency to coordinate signals intelligence among the military services. In 1952, the organization was renamed the National Security Agency (NSA) and given more authority to coordinate signals intelligence among the various government agencies. The NSA soon became the U. S. government’s largest intelligence organization, in terms of both budget and personnel. It operated the most sophisticated computer complex in the world and a global network of listening and relay stations.

The U. S. intelligence community also dramatically improved its ability to collect imagery intelligence, which involves aerial (and later, space) reconnaissance. In the late 1950s, the CIA sponsored the development of the U-2 spy plane. The U-2 was capable of flying above foreign air defenses and taking remarkably detailed photos. The pictures taken by U-2s calmed American fears that the Soviet Union possessed a strategic military advantage and helped reduce international tensions. In 1960, the United States launched the first reconnaissance satellite. The satellite took photos from space and sent them back to Earth in a reentry capsule. In one flight, it covered more territory than all the flights during the four years of the U-2 program. By 1977, American satellites were able to send digital images from space to the president’s desk in one hour.

During the Vietnam War, American intelligence efforts again focused on combating perceived domestic subversion. Presidents Johnson and Nixon believed that domestic opposition to the war was the result of communist influence. They directed the CIA to investigate foreign involvement in various dissent and peace organizations. Although the CIA found no communist influence, both Johnson and Nixon refused to believe the findings and asked the agency to continually expand its investigations. When CIA spying on the antiwar movement was revealed in 1974, the agency had established nearly 10,000 files on U. S. citizens, including 14 past or present members of Congress. The NSA had also intercepted the communications of 1,680 U. S. citizens or groups between 1966 and 1973.

The revelations about domestic spying operations, which were soon followed by others about covert operations abroad, resulted in much closer scrutiny of the intelligence community. Both houses of Congress created special committees to examine the community’s activities; the fundamental issue in the committees’ hearings was the role of intelligence in an open society. Intelligence operations contribute to national security, but they require secrecy to be effective. Too much secrecy, however, can lead to abuses. In an effort to strike a better balance between secrecy and democracy, Congress established standing committees in both houses to monitor the executive branch’s management of the intelligence community.

Many of the issues that figured prominently in the history of American intelligence gathering in war resurfaced in the 21st century. Despite impressive technological advances, intelligence gathering remained imperfect. The intelligence community failed to provide adequate warning of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, and did not accurately estimate the size and scope of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction program in the run-up to the Iraq War. The intelligence failures were attributable, at least in part, to the lingering dependence on technological collection methods and the resulting neglect of human intelligence sources. The spread of international terrorism further blurred the line between peacetime and wartime intelligence gathering by producing a dramatic increase in the scope and pace of intelligence activities. It also prompted reformers to reiterate their demands for greater centralization.

Finally, the growth of terrorism prompted the passage of legal provisions granting the government greater latitude to collect domestic intelligence. The USAPATRIOT Act of 2001 expanded the power of the government to monitor and intercept communications domestically, expanded its ability to conduct warrantless searches of records such as book-borrowing histories at libraries, and encouraged greater information sharing between the intelligence community and domestic law enforcement. Opponents of the act claimed that it threatened civil liberties, while supporters argued that it was an important tool to combat terrorism. The expansion and centralization of intelligence operations and the debate over the Patriot Act highlighted the still unresolved issues of the effectiveness of intelligence and its proper role in a democracy.

Bibliography Andrew, Christopher. For the President’s Eyes Only: Secret Intelligence and the American Presidency from Washington to Bush. New York: HarperCollins, 1995. Fishel, Edwin C. “The Mythology of Civil War Intelligence.” Civil War History 10 (December 1964): 344-67. Keegan, John. Intelligence in War: Knowledge of the Enemy from Napoleon to al-Qaeda. New York: Knopf, 2003. O’Toole, G. J. A. Honorable Treachery: A History of U. S. Intelligence, Espionage, and Covert Action from the American Revolution to the CIA. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1991. Sayle, Edward F. “The Historical Underpinnings of the U. S. Intelligence Community.” Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence 1 (Spring 1986): 1-27.

Further Reading Central Intelligence Agency. “Intelligence Literature: Suggested Reading List.” http://www. cia. gov/cia/publications/intellit/index. html. Clark, J. Ransom. “The Literature of Intelligence: A Bibliography of Materials, with Essays, Reviews, and Comments.” http://intellit. muskingum. edu. Fishel, Edwin C. The Secret War for the Union: The Untold Story of Military Intelligence in the Civil War. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1996. Lowenthal, Mark N. Intelligence: From Secrets to Policy. Washington, D. C.: Congressional Quarterly, 2000. Mahnken, Thomas G. Uncovering Ways of War: U. S. Intelligence and Foreign Military Innovation, 1918-1941. Ithaca, N. Y.: Cornell University Press, 2002. Miller, Nathan. Spying for America: The Hidden History of U. S. Intelligence. New York: Paragon, 1989. Ranelagh, John. The Agency: The Rise and Decline of the CIA. Rev. ed. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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