Coast Guard Intelligence is one of two intelligence agencies that belong to the Department of Homeland Security. (The other is the Office of Intelligence & Analysis.) Though its membership in the U.S. Intelligence Community is relatively recent, its mission reaches back to the earliest days of the Republic, when the Coast Guard’s nascent intelligence mission was the “securing of information which is essential to the Coast Guard in carrying out its duties; for the dissemination of this information to responsible officers, operating units of the Coast Guard, the Treasury Department and other collaborating agencies; and the maintenance of adequate files and records of law enforcement activities.” Today, homeland security and national defense are its prime directives. Here are a few things you might not know about Coast Guard Intelligence.

1. An intelligence function for the Coast Guard was an Alexander Hamilton innovation.

Your first question might be: where did the Coast Guard come from, anyway? In Federalist No. 12, Hamilton wrote that a “few armed vessels, judiciously stationed at the entrances of our ports, might at a small expense be made useful sentinels of the laws.” And useful they were, collecting taxes at a time when the fledgling nation was broke. (After the Continental Navy was disbanded in 1790, this small cutter fleet would also comprise the entirety of our navy.) The little cutter fleet traveled the coast and provided Hamilton with “an unending stream of intelligence.” At the time, it may well have been the most effective intelligence service in the United States.

2. Coast Guard Intelligence was officially born in 1915.

Article 304 of the Coast Guard’s 1915 regulations provided for a “Chief Intelligence Officer,” who was charged with “securing of information which is essential to the Coast Guard in carrying out its duties; for the dissemination of this information to responsible officers, operating units of the Coast Guard, the Treasury Department and other collaborating agencies; and the maintenance of adequate files and records of law enforcement activities.” From this, Coast Guard Intelligence was born.

3. Coast Guard Intelligence made its bones during Prohibition

Coast Guard Intelligence pioneered communications intelligence, or COMINT, by way of ship to shore communications, paving the way for HF/DF, or “high-frequency direction finding.” Huff-Duff, as it was called, allowed for locating and intercepting transmitting radios by way of triangulation. (Locating transmitters is Signals Intelligence 101.) This advance in intelligence gathering proved essential during the Rum War during Prohibition, and during World War II.

4. Coast Guard Intelligence was a vital asset to the Office of Strategic Services in World War II.

Captain Carl Hoffman, chief of OSS Special Operations, wrote to the chief of OSS Naval Command, stating that he had proposed to General “Wild Bill Donovan “the use of Coast Guardsmen for OSS work.” Hoffman explained, “Most Coast Guardsmen are well trained in communications and incidentally trained in the use of side arms. If wherever possible we can draw our men from the Coast Guard we have gained in time as more than half their training is complete.” Guardians’ mastery of small boat handling was also considered an important benefit, as it might well “prove useful in an emergency.” Meanwhile, Coast Guard Intelligence’s HF/DF abilities greatly helped code breaking operations carried out in conjunction with the office of Naval Intelligence.

5. They pioneered exercises that Navy SEALs would adopt 40 years later.

Two OSS units—the Maritime Unit and the Operational Swimmer Group—needed men who could swim and dive, and who were skilled with boats and signaling. To fill their ranks, they turned to the Coast Guard, who trained and deployed to Europe and the China, Burma, India Theater. In the Pacific, they linked up with the Navy Underwater Demolition Team 10. Guardians made up one-third of the Maritime Unit. Just before the OSG went to the China, Burma, India Theater, they were tasked with a security exercise called Operation Cincinnati. Their mission was to penetrate U.S. Navy defenses at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The goals of the exercise were to test the OSG’s skills, and find weaknesses in the Navy’s fortification. And find weaknesses they did. The “Red Group,” as they were called, circumvented the Navy’s defenses with minimal equipment. They also proved the effectiveness of undersea warfare. Forty years later, the “Red Cell” of the Navy SEALs would likewise be charged with evaluating the effectiveness of Navy defenses.

6. Coast Guard Intelligence formally joined the U.S. Intelligence Community in 2002.

WMD proliferation, drug smugglers, gunrunners, and illegal immigration shifted Coast Guard Intelligence’s role from that of a “customer” to a full member of the Intelligence Community. This was formalized with the Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2002, signed by President George W. Bush, which modified the National Security Act of 1947 and gave Coast Guard Intelligence “a seat at the table.”

7. Coast Guard Intelligence has 5 components.

Each component of Coast Guard Intelligence has a specific role in the agency’s overall mission. The special agents of the Coast Guard Investigative Service do pretty much what Agent Gibbs and his team do on the show NCIS. They investigate crimes, work undercover, liaise with other law enforcement agencies, and pass along intelligence they gather in the field. The Coast Guard Cryptologic Group handles signals-intelligence for the Coast Guard, and works alongside the Navy and other SIGINT agencies to make sure everyone is working from the same page. Meanwhile, the Coast Guard Counterintelligence Service protects the Coast Guard from foreign agents who might attempt to penetrate their ranks or compromise their operations. This involves intelligence collection and analysis. The Coast Guard Cyber Program secures Coast Guard computer networks and works with the Department of Homeland Security (to which the Coast Guard belongs) and the Department of Defense to proactively identify and eliminate electronic threats. After each component does its job, the Coast Guard Intelligence Coordination Center collects, synthesizes, analyzes, and disseminates solid intelligence. It also tasks the various components of Coast Guard Intelligence with new intelligence objectives.


See more articles in this series:

10 Things You Might Not Know About the Bureau of Intelligence and Research

5 Things You Might Not Know About the Office of Intelligence and Counterintelligence

10 Things You Didn’t Know About the U.S. Secret Service

10 Things You Might Not Know About the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency

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David Brown is a regular contributor to ClearanceJobs. His most recent book, THE MISSION (Custom House, 2021), is now available in bookstores everywhere in hardcover and paperback. He can be found online at