How Did Spy Services Develop in the United States?
Many Americans today would see that espionage work and spying by the United States is critical for their national security. The history of the services that have provided this, however, is more complex, and often mirrored the development and transformations that affected the US. Through its development as an independent state to one that expanded across the West, and its experiences in the Civil War and World Wars, history has shaped what spying means to the US.
What is different from many other powers that developed spying services is the relatively short history of the US. The experiences, therefore, are different in how they have influenced government's approach to spying. One of the first spy groups derived prior to the American Revolutionary War in 1765. The Sons of Liberty formed as a group that fought against the Stamp Act and would observe British troop movements in Boston and other places. This included well known revolutionaries such as Samuel Adams and John Hancock. During the Revolutionary War, George Washington was one of the first to write and recognize the need for espionage. Threats to the colonists/revolutionaries, and eventual early US military, were from Britain. War espionage depended on a network of spies throughout different areas, where Washington wanted to stay one step ahead of the pursuing British Army. This included using Native Americans who were adept at secretive observation that Washington had first hand experience with during the French and Indian War. Washington also used a cryptanalyst Samuel West to read secretive letters. Double agents were also used by the British to counter Washington, such as Dr. Benjamin Church who fed important information about the revolutionaries.
Benjamin Franklin was placed in charge of the Committee of Secret Correspondence, which worked to change sentiment about the Revolution in European states so that the revolutionaries would gain increasing support. His most successful efforts were with the French, who ultimately helped aid the revolutionaries in fighting the British. This proved crucial in helping turning the tide, where French troops and aid greatly helped the revolutionaries to successfully fight.
After the war, American spying took a downturn as the country was preoccupied with building the young country. In fact, the US was ill prepared for the war of 1812, where US soldiers were often unaware even where the frontier with Canada was even located. It was the Civil War where things changed once again. The North, in the Civil War, developed a network of spies who were able to cross between the borders with the South, such as William Alvin Lloyd. The North also developed two spying agencies, including one run by Allan Pinkerton and another run by Lafayette Baker. There was two due to infighting between generals who depended on the different spy heads. This often lead to information not being shared and sometimes counterproductive efforts that sometimes even led to the arrest of spies working for the other agency. There were some notable successes in troop movement observations, but often the information did not have a clear chain where the intelligence could be used for actionable purposes. The South had some notable successes, often creating an elaborate network in major northern cities. The most successful group was the so-called Canadian Cabinet, which ran a Southern spy network from Montreal. It is likely John Wilkes Booth, Lincoln's assassin, derived from this group. They also succeeded in several sabotage operations and creating fires in major cities.