The White House has long had a connection to the intelligence community (IC), and in fact, it dates back even before there was a White House. The first true American spy was believed to be Nathan Hale, who during the Battle of Long Island, volunteered to go behind enemy lines in disguise to report back on British troop movements. It didn’t end well, as Hale was captured and executed as a spy in September 1776 – less than three months after the Declaration of Independence was signed.
Famously uttering the words, “I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country,” Hale became something of a folk legend. More importantly, he wasn’t the last American spy to operate during the American Revolution.
In 1778, General George Washington called upon Major Benjamin Tallmadge to create a spy ring in New York City, the site of the British Army’s headquarters. That led to the creation of the now infamous Culper Spy Ring, which gathered information until the end of the war. The Culper Ring used various techniques to relay information including coded messages published in newspapers and in letters that featured invisible ink. Over time the codes became so complex that Tallmadge even created a pocket dictionary that included the lists of verbs, nouns, people and places with corresponding code numbers.
Lincoln’s Civil War Spies
Just as Washington relied on spies to help forge a nation, President Abraham Lincoln also employed spies to preserve the Union during the American Civil War. Lincoln hired William Alvin Lloyd to spy in the south and report back directly.
Lloyd – who has been described as a con man and minstrel troupe impresario – worked as a spy under the guise of a steamboat and railroad guide publisher. He had approached President Lincoln in July 1861 and offered his services, claiming he would report on troop locations and movement, and procure plans for Confederate forts and other structures. Lloyd stipulated that he’d only report back directly to Lincoln. He was also to be paid a $200 monthly stipend, a considerable sum in the 1860s, and compensated for expenses.
It has been questioned how effective the information actually was, in part because Lloyd never used a code or cipher. That made sharing intelligence documents all the more difficult, and the information gathered often lacked critical timeliness. When the war ended, Lloyd returned to Washington, D.C., and after the assassination of Lincoln, the former “spy” submitted his bills for payment. As no copy of the contract with Lincoln could be found, the government refused to pay. Lloyd did receive around $3,400 in gold, which was about the third of what he claimed he was owed.
After he died, Lloyd’s widow hired lawyer Enoch Totten to sue the government. The case made it all the way to the Supreme Court, but the court ruled against Totten.
The Espionage Act
President Woodrow Wilson didn’t rely on a network of spies during the First World War. Rather, fearing that anti-war speeches and street pamphlets could undermine the war effort, President Woodrow Wilson and Congress passed two laws. The first was the Espionage Act of 1917, which prohibited obtaining information, recording pictures, or copying descriptions of any information relating to the national defense with intent or reason to believe that the information may be used for the injury of the United States or to the advantage of any foreign nation.
The second was the Sedition Act of 1918, which curtailed the free speech rights of U.S. citizens during time of war. Passed on May 16, 1918, as an amendment to Title I of the Espionage Act of 1917, the act provided for further and expanded limitations on speech.
World War II and the OSS
Prior to the Second World War, various departments of the executive branch, including the State, Treasury, Navy and War Departments all conducted American intelligence activities on what was essentially an ad hoc basis. There was no overall direction, coordination, or even control. Even worse, the U.S. Army and U.S. Navy had separate code-breaking departments. The Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) was responsible for domestic security and anti-espionage operations, yet there was no agency that conducted actual espionage.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt called for the formation of an American intelligence agency. Roosevelt directed William J. Donovan to develop a plan for an intelligence service that would be modeled on the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) and the Special Operations Executive (SOE). The result was the Office of Strategic Services (OSS).
It was established by a Presidential military order issued by Roosevelt on June 13, 1942, to collect and analyze strategic information required by the Joint Chiefs of Staff and to conduct special operations not assigned to other agencies. During the Second World War, the OSS successfully supplied policymakers with facts and estimates, but the OSS never had jurisdiction over all foreign intelligence activities – the FBI was left responsible for intelligence work in Latin America, and the Army and Navy continued to develop and rely on their own sources of intelligence.
Truman and the CIA
After the Second World War, President Harry S. Truman established the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), which wasn’t really so much about spies in trench coats hiding in dark corners, but rather as an information gathering service that could provide the White House with truly “need to know” daily briefings.
The new agency grew out of the OSS, which was always intended to be a temporary agency – yet as tensions grew with the Soviet Union, it became apparent there was still the need for it. While Truman was among those who feared that the agency could have too much power, he signed the National Security Act in September 1947, which gave birth to the CIA. Later, Truman would express his fears again in a December 1963 op-ed for The Washington Post, titled “Limit CIA Role to Intelligence.”
“There is something about the way the CIA has been functioning that is casting a shadow over our historic position and I feel that we need to correct it,” Truman wrote, arguing that that agency had diverted from its original assignment, and that it had “become an operational and at times a policy-making arm of the Government.”
The relationship that presidents have had with the CIA has evolved. While the agency still provides critical information to the president, the CIA also depends on the president for both the direction of its mission and its political survival.