Origins of American Covert Action

During an archive dive, came across an interesting (very) brief history of US intelligence activities, which ended up into the Congressional record from the Church Committee hearings. The testimony was delivered in the context of a discussion on covert action by William Colby, who served as Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) between 1973-1976.

As the original was poorly readable, found a better copy from the Government Publishing Office website. For ease of access, including the text below with a few links for more information on some of the topics mentioned.

Intelligence Activities

As the United States approaches its Bicentennial Year, Mr. Chairman, it seems fitting to note that the Founding Fathers had a lively appreciation of covert action as a foreign policy tool.

Two hundred years ago next month, the Continental Congress created our first intelligence service, the Committee of Secret Correspondence. Benjamin Franklin functioned in Paris as both intelligence collector and agent of influence in its behalf. Historians tell us that Franklin used all the tools of the intelligence profession in pursuing his mission in France – main drops, ciphers, aliases, forged documents and mail interception. To prevent others from forging his correspondence, Franklin used his typographical ingenuity to produce a distinctive script type designed by himself. Franklin’s agents established what may have been the first covert action proprietary company, HORTALEZ and Company, to acquire and ship French arms to America.

George Washington used a code number – “711” – and personally engaged in intelligence deception. In one covert deception operation he allowed the British to capture “secret” papers misdirecting the British forces to Manhattan and away from our troops at Newberry saving American forces from defeat. And of course what we now call paramilitary advisers from abroad are heroes to the American people they helped free: Lafayette, von Steuben, Koskiusko [Kościuszko] and others.

The first known American intelligence net was established by Paul Revere. Thirty persons were assigned the job of reporting on British troop movements in Boston and performing occasional sabotage. The members of this net were known as the “mechanics” because of their technical skills.

Paul Revere filed the first recorded covert action voucher with the Continental Congress for three pounds to cover the cost of printing one thousand impressions. Revere’s accounting also asked for reimbursement of living and travel expenses for himself amounting to seven pounds. The House of Representatives reduced his per diem to four shillings a day and settled the bill in full on the 22nd of August 1775.

The Committee of Correspondence also had problems on the degree of secrecy and protection of sources and methods. On one occasion it refused to provide the Congress with secret information. At issue was a dispatch from Arthur Lee brought to the Committee by Thomas Story. The record of the Committee deliberations noted that considering the importance of the information, it was their “indispensable duty” to keep it secret, even from the Congress. The Committee noted that the Congress consisted of too many members to keep secrets. Later, on the 10th of May 1776, the Congress called on the Committee to lay their proceedings before it. An exception was made to this request, and the Committee was permitted to withhold the names of persons they employed or with whom they had corresponded.

Personally found it amusing that the problem of keeping secrets in large groups was discussed in 1776, as it was still a topic of discussion two hundred years later, when Bob Work wrote a memo on covert action in the 1980s.


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