War and Social Upheaval: Intelligence and Spying

Figure 1.--

Intelligence and spying seem as old as war itself. Espionage is not as well documented as actual war, but there are a wide range of historical accounts. And of course there is a narrow line between diplomacy and espionage. Diplomats had the advatage oif immuniy. We note early references in the Bible. Some of the best known ancient accounts are the ancient writings of Chinese and Indian military strategists such as Sun-Tzu in China and Chanakya in India. Modern espionage is better documented. Often it is the weaker combatant that is more concerned with espionahe, but that is not always the case. George Washington had an active spy system during the Revolutionary war. Spies were active in the American Civil War. The most detailed accounts of espionage exist for World War I, World War II, and the Cold War. Several of the spy agencies involved became world famous. The 20th century had a major impact on intelligence. With the advent of radio. elecronic or signals intelligence became a whole new ahd critical area of spying. And differences developed because of the closed nature of the totalitarian societies which developed after World War I. This resulted in major differences between the various intelligence services. Different services have their own chracter abd values as well as preferred methods. The Soviet Union durung the Cold War focused on human sources rather than research in open sources. Thecappealmof Communist ideologybprovided many willing recruits all over the world. The United States in contrast tended to emphasize technological methods, in part because of the closed nature of Soviet society. Even with the end of the Cold War, espionage has not ended. Both China and Russia are very active. Espionage is generally associated with governmental organizations or politucal mivements. There is also commercial spying which became of some importance in the 20th century. And the advent of the computer has had a major impact on spying.



The ancient Egyptians had a thoroughly developed system for the acquisition of intelligence,

The Bible

Deborah is one of the claic spies of history. The story of Rahab is a early account of spying..

Ancient China

Ancient India

Chandragupta Maurya, founder of the Maurya Empire in India, made use of assassinations, spies and secret agents, which are described in Chanakya's Arthasastra.

Classical Era

Spies were used in both the Greek and Roman empires.


Al Qaeda tells its supportes, "Since Islam is superior to all human conditions and earthly religions, it permits spying for itself but not for others”. [Al Qaeda Manual Eleventh Lesson] Islam from its cbeginnings in the Arabian Desert has a long history of espionage as it is an integral element of Jihad-Holy War. And for Islam, espionage ad spying is not an extraneous activity, it is central to the Islamic world view of the infidel. Modern Al Qaeda operatives cite the Prophet and the Koran as religious, operational and inspirational models in much the same way thatvthe Holy Koran is the basis for Sharia Law. There are no analogous texts or models in Christian New Testanment Buddhist religious texts.

The Mongols

Mongols relied heavily on spies in their conquests of Asia and Europe. Contemprary accounts use the term 'hordes' to describe the Mongols, but in fact Mongol armies were usually smaller than the defending forces.

Feudal Japan

Feudal Japanese rulers used ninja to gather intelligence.

Tudor England

Espionage played an important role Elizabethan England. Elizabeth's spy master was Francis Walsingham and probably saved here head.

The Conquest of the Anmericas

Aztecs used Pochtecas. Cortez used Malinche.

American Revolutionary War

Intelligence and espionage played an important role in the Revolutionary War. America was an epecially fertile ground for inteligence gathering because the popultion included large numbers of people who were either loyalists and patriots as well as many who were uncommitted to either side. And there was not way of identifying spies from ethnic or national background. Noth Patriots and Loyalist looked alike and spoke English. From the beginning in Boston, intelligence and espionage was important. Patriots in Boston warned the militias acriss the Bay in Massachusetts that the Briish were coming. Spies were in fact everywhere. One especially high-placed spy was Genral Howe's wife in Boston. He shipped her home to avoid an arrest and trial. Pennsylvania became a hotbed of spying because the Continenal Government (the Congrss) was located there. Washington was deeply invested in the spy business. One historian writes. "George Washington, having realized his mistake when he evcuated New York City in 1776 in not establishing a stay-behind spy network, did not make the same mistake twice .... [During] the spring of 1777, he instructed General Thomas Mifflin to set up a spy system in Philadelphia. Washingtion's instruction specifically included the recruiting of Quakers as spies because they would draw the least suspicion as they refused on religious grounds to serve in a military conflict." [Nagy] When the British occupied Philidelphia, Washington was thus able to use Patriot spies to keep apraised of British intentions. And after the British withdrawl to the New York area, Loyalists kept the British apraised of Congress and the Continental Army. The most famous Patriot spy was Nathan Hale who the British hung. In retaliation, Washington ordered Major Andre who was working with Benedict Arnold hung.

Napoleonic Wars

American Civil War

Spies were active in the American Civil War on both sides.

The Great Game

The Great Game was was the strategic rivalry between the British and Tsarist Russian Empires for aimed at entending their infuence into Central Asia. Historians commonly date the rivalry from the Russo-Persian Treaty (1813) to the Anglo-Russian Convention (1907). The British interest derived from the importance of the Raj in India--the most important element of the British Empire. It was in Afghanistant that Russia influence from Central Asia met and competed with British interests from the Indian sub-continent. The Great Game was a contributing factor in the Crimean War (1853-56). The Great Game was one of the reasons that Britain negotiated a Naval Treaty with Japan and help develop the Japanese Navy in the late-19th century.

World War I

Despite all the modern technical innovations, battlefield command an control during World War I was not greatly different than that of that of the 19th century and earlier periods. There were various methods used by commanders in rear areas to keep in contact with their various units. Runners and couriers were used with the motor cycle replacing the horse. Signal flags, mirrors, flashing lights, and other metods were used. Dogs were also used, but the tendency of front line units to adopt them as pets meant they often were not returned to headqurters. Telephone lines could be string to the trenches. The problem occurred when offensives were launched. Once an offensive was set in motion, the commanders in the rear in the chaos of battle essentially lost contact with their advancing forward elements. Innovations were attempted such as dropping messages by air, but this was not the same as two-way messaging. The telegraph and telephone had been invented (mid-19th century) and these these instruments were very effective in establishing contact between army commanders and unit commanders, but not front line units especially those on the move. Lines had to be strung. And radios were to heavy by advancing combat troops. While little progress was made in battle-field command and control, the appearance of radio sets just befire the War did revolutionize military communications, both art sea and on land. The fact that signals naval and and army commanders were transmitted for the first time meant that interception was possible on a large scale for the first time. And the War began with huge failure of signals decipline on the Eastern Front. The Russian defeat at Tannenberg was in part because of commabders ignoring regulations and transmitting many messages describing troop movements and strategic/tactical measures plain text. The Germans had committed the bulk of their army to the Western offensive and as a result a much smaller force was available to oppose the Russian offensive in the East. But the Russians essentially told the Germans the details of their offensive in East Prussia where Germany bordered on Russia. The result was the hugec German victiory at Tannenberg. The Germans also learned a great deal about Russian secure communicationss. While it was the Germans who took advantage of the security lapses, at this early stage of the War, the Germans wwere also not careful about their transmissions. The Russians did obtain a major intelligence prize. The found a code book on the the German cruiser Magdeburg and turned it over to the British. This gave the British insights into German secure communications for most of the War. Naval intelligence during the War, however, was primarily assessing the direction and volume of transmissions. The Germans upgraded their code system just before launching their hoped for war-winning offensive (Spring 1918). Allied crypto analysts were, as aresult, in the dark as the front-line troops braced for the German offensive. The Allies had, however, other sources of information. Aerial reconisance provided information on rear area movement which detected buildups. Wireless traffic annalisis was also useful. The French thus concluded that the final German blow would come between Compiegne and Montdidier, tow towns about 50 miles north of Paris. The Kaiserschlacht came at that exact location (June 9, 1918). The British and French with newly deployed American infantry managed to stop the final German thrust.

World War II

Intelligence was a matter of substantial importance in World War II. It was of greater importance than of virtually any other major war in history. The primary reason for this was that vast amounts of intelligence were available to any country which was willing to string up radio antenna and invest in training staff to receive and decide messages. World War II was the first war in which electronic (radio/wireless) messages were a major factor. The telegram became important in the 19th century, but telegram messages sent over wire lines were difficult to intercept. They were not impossible (as the British showed with the World War I Zimmerman telegram). And mobile mechanized warfare as initiated first by the Germans and subsequently by the Allies required vast numbers of easily intercepted (but less easilly decoded) messages. The issue of code breaking is one of the most important aspects of World War II intelligence. Here the British and Americans excelled and reaped very substantial benefits. The Germans were particularly vulnerable because they had such confidence in their Enigma machine. Very little is known about Soviet code breaking. The Germans had some successes, but generally failed at breaking Allied codes. Neither did the Japanese manage to break Allied codes. Electronic inteligence was not the only methods. The Soviets operated the most sucessful spy networks, in both Allied and Axis countries. The existence of Communist Party organizations proved a great asset. The major German spy was believed to have been before the War in encouraging Stalin's purge of the Red Army, but that has been discounted by many historians. German intelligence during the War was nothing short of a disaster. The Soviets manage to surprise the Germans with a series of offensives beginning with winter counter offensive before Moscow (December 1941). Of course the German intelligence operation was the fact that the head of the Abwehr, Admiral Canaris, was actively working against the NAZIs. The greatest Allied achievement may have been in fooling the Germans about the location of the D-Day landings. Allied opperatives also provided valuavle information about the German rocket program. The major surprise German operation of the War was the Ardennes offensive which Allied intelligence failed to detect, in part because of German signals duscipline (December 1944).

Cold War

The Cold War unlike World War I and World War II which proceeded it was primarily fought on the intelligence front. The intelligence struggle was a fascinating one. Although the American Central Inteligence Agency is a much agency, in fact thanks to the CIA and other Western intelligence, the Soviets never succeed in launching a weapon system which upset the strategic ballance or surprisng the United Sates with an unansweravle feint. The one weapon system which the CIA did not fully appreciate was the Soviet biological weapns program, but it never became a factor in the Cold war. The CIA and National Security Agency (NSA) achieved many innovative technical successes. The KGB on the other hand while relying less on technology proved extrodinarily adroit in recruiting agents at high levels in the Western camp, especally in Germany. Although these successes gained them little and may have backfired. More useful was the penetration of American, and British intelligence services through ideological penetration or simple (often paltry) payoffs. The full story of the intelligence struggle has not yet been written.

Post-Cold War Era

Despite the end of the Cold war, spying and espionage continues. The Russians cintinue to be major actirs. Espionage agencies in recent year have targeted the illegal drug trade and those considered to be terrorists. China which was not very active during the Cold war has become a major actor in the intelligence game. Since 2008 the United States has charged at least 57 defendants for attempting to spy for China.

Codes and Code Breaking

Writing in Mesopotamia developed as a result of commercial needs. There may have been more religious nad state needs in Egypt and the Americas. Not long after writing appeared, secret writing of various forms followed. Code breaking was avery different matter. It was with the development mathematics and lexicography in the medieval Arab world that any sophisticated approach to code breaking began. Arab philosophers began to identify the principles of code breaking. There were several key factors they gradually identified. 1) In any alphabet, some letters appear more commonly than others (14th century AD). 2) Messages often begin in a stereotypical fashion (8th century AD). [Al Khalil] Al Khalil explains how he solved a Greek cipher message sent by the Byzantine Emperor. He assumed that it began with 'In the name of God'. The Bletchley Park code breakers would refer to this as 'cribbing'. 3) Finding stock phrases. 4) The longer a message, the easier it is to crack. The number of messages also aids code breakers. Code breaking developed slowly over time. A major development giving empetus to code breaking was the invention of the telegraph. The military quickly at the time began using both railroads and telegrams. Thelegraphic messages posed all kinds of problems because they were much easier to intercept than couriers. The telegraph resulted in a huge increase in the number of messages sent. Codeing them created problems. The code system had to be easy enough to decode that the messages could be read in a timely fashion. Yet they had to be secure enough to prevent the enemy from reading them. rne source suggests that the Federal Army sent something like 6 million telegrams. The Confederacy intercepted some of them, but did not manage to decode any of them. Both telegraphic and radio messages played a role in World War I. If telegraphic messages were inherently insecure, messages sent by radio were instantly available to any one who wanted to listen. As a result, after World War I, several counties whose code systems were cracked developed elaborate systems to prevent this from happening again (Germany, Japan, and the Soviet Union). The Germans and Japanese developed and used cypher machines during World War II which they believed could not be cracked. And they were right using conventional code breaking techniques. Innovtive minds in Poland, Britain, and America, managed, however, to do just that at great cost to the Axis war effort. Axis military staffs were completely unaware thriughoutthe War tht their most secret codes had been cracked.


(Al) Khalil. A Basra grammarian.

Nagy, John A. Spies in the Continental Capital (2011, 256p.

(Al) Qaeda Manual. Eleventh Lesson--Espionage. UK BM/75.


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Created: 5:38 PM 8/26/2012
Last updated: 7:57 PM 12/14/2012