The Pathos of Politics (126) Intelligence


Know the enemy and know yourself. ~ Sun Tzu

In the political sense, intelligence is secret activity aimed at comprehending or changing what goes on. Espionage is as old as warfare and diplomacy. In making sense of the seemingly insensible, intelligence, and its lack thereof, are the missing dimension of history. Without accurate intelligence, leadership is blind.

United States

The ultimate ancestor of all American intelligence services is the Sons of Liberty: a federation of dissident secret societies formed in 1765 in reaction to the Stamp Act. Sometimes called the Liberty Boys, the group employed a variety of tactics, including terrorism.

 Revolutionary War

George Washington was the spymaster-in-chief during the American Revolution. He recruited snoopers, instructed them on tradecraft, sent them out, welcomed them back, and paid them off.

Everything depends upon obtaining intelligence of the enemy’s motions. ~ George Washington in 1776

When it came to espionage, the Liberty Boys proved to be bumbling amateurs. They were countered by complacent professionals in the British, led by General William Howe, who had insufficient appreciation of espionage.

It was not until Howe was replaced, in 1778, that the British established a secret service in North America. By then, the opportunities lost meant that France’s entry into the war proved decisive for the rebels. With better intelligence and military leadership, Britain could have won a relatively quick victory.

 Civil War

The poor quality of espionage was the reason the Civil War dragged on for 4 years. Private detective Allen Pinkerton was the North’s spymaster during the war’s 1st phase. His consistent overestimation of Confederate troop strength encouraged the tendency of General George McClellan to dally in prosecuting the war. Sure victories were turned into sieges and losses as a result.

At the outset, the South had better intelligence gathering, part of which came from reading Northern news reports.

Press censorship was a problem that plagued the North throughout the war. Northern General William Sherman regarded newspaper correspondents as Confederate spies. Many other Federal commanders felt similarly. Having been informed that 3 journalists had been killed by an exploding shell, Sherman exclaimed: “Good! Now we shall have news from Hell before breakfast.” With fewer papers and tighter censorship, the South suffered less self-inflicted damage.

The North’s early bumbling of intelligence was corrected in early 1863, when Colonel George Sharpe created a modern secret service. The South had nothing to match Sharpe’s intel on enemy troop movements and intentions.

While the Civil War was a sectional conflict, neither the North nor South enjoyed unanimous support from its peoples. Secret societies sprang up to counter war efforts by providing intelligence to the other side. Those who supported the North were better organized and equipped.

A telling difference in Civil War intelligence came in counterespionage. The Confederates’ dismal failure in this regard owed in large part to misplaced trust. The Confederate leadership too readily accepted anyone who professed dedication to their aims. Such credulousness was less a reflection of Southern aristocrats lacking Yankee guile than in naïve faith in the rightness of their cause.


Americans abandoned intelligence-gathering when the Civil War ended. All institutional memory and skill were lost.

The US military took up spy craft again in the early 1880s. The 1879–1884 War of the Pacific, with Chile pitted against Bolivia and Peru for possession of the nitrate-rich Atacama desert, impressed American policy makers of the need for their own militarism and intelligence-gathering on foreign nations. The investment proved fruitful shortly thereafter, when the United States quickly defeated Spain in the 1898 conflict.

 Pearl Harbor

In the 20th century, the United States’ most grievous intelligence failure culminated on 7 December 1941; what President Franklin Roosevelt called “a day that will live in infamy.”

We failed to anticipate Pearl Harbor not for want of the relevant materials, but because of a plethora of irrelevant ones. ~ American military intelligence historian Roberta Wohlstetter

While Wohlstetter had a point, more on-point was the fact that Captain William Puleston, head of US naval intelligence, grossly underestimated the Japanese and American diligence. Dismissing the prospect of the Japanese attack to come, Puleston wrote just months before:

The Pacific Fleet is at one of the strongest bases in the world – Pearl Harbor – practically on a war footing and under a war regime.

 World War 2

I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve. ~ Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto

The army led Japan’s war effort under general Hideki Tōjō, who was also prime minister; but Japan’s prospects against the US relied upon brilliant application of its naval power. Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto was key to that.

Beyond sheer military strength, the Germans and Japanese were defeated in the 2nd World War by their encrypted messages being cracked by Allied forces, and in not realizing that their communications were compromised.

On 13 April 1943, American military intelligence deciphered a Japanese naval message that 5 days thence Admiral Yamamoto was going to inspect Japanese air bases on Bougainville, the largest of the Solomon Islands. The American shot down the plane Yamamoto was in, killing him; an event that greatly diminished Japan’s war prospects.

Yamamoto’s death demoralized the Japanese. His successor – Admiral Mineichi Koga – was a conservative strategist who lacked flair and charisma.


The smartness of British intelligence during World War 2 prompted President Roosevelt to create a secret service modeled on the Brits’ MI6. The American OSS (Office of Strategic Services) was an evolution of previous foreign intelligence operations but fell short of comprehensiveness and coordination. The FBI was left responsible for intelligence in Latin America, and the Army and Navy continued to sport their own intelligence services.


President Truman disbanded the OSS on 20 September 1945. By the end of the year, he had changed his mind, and sanctioned the creation of the intelligence group that became the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency).


The prime worry of the CIA was the Soviets. The US developed the U-2 ultra-high-altitude aircraft, which made its 1st flight into the USSR on 4 July 1956. The CIA thought the plane might be detected at some time, but they did not imagine that the Soviets were able to track every flight from entry to exit.

The Soviets diplomatically protested the violations of sovereign air space, to no avail. So, on 1 May 1960, the Soviets shot down the 24th U-2 to fly over the USSR.

The US predictably lied about the incident. The Soviets were able the reveal the deception because the U-2 pilot, Gary Powers, had been captured alive.

 US / USSR Missile Gap

Beginning in 1957, US intelligence badly overestimated Soviet ballistic missile capabilities. The military’s guess was laughably off. Though somewhat closer to actuality, the CIA too were far above the Soviet’s actual count. The U-2 flights helped give a false feeling of accuracy.

John Kennedy, who was running for president, invented the term “missile gap” to accuse the Eisenhower administration of being weak on defense. By mid-1960, the Eisenhower administration had revised their missile gap estimates, and told Kennedy so in a secret briefing. Though he knew better, Kennedy kept up the rhetoric which helped him get elected.

(The Eisenhower administration, though frustrated with Kennedy’s lying, kept quiet for fear of revealing the U-2 program.)

 Bay of Pigs

(The Bay of Pigs is an inlet on the southern coast of Cuba; the intended landing site for the US-sponsored invasion.)

In the 1820s, when the rest of Spain’s Latin America empire rebelled and formed independent states, Cuba stayed loyal. A large part of this owed to relative enslavement. At the time, only 36% of Cubans were slaves; much lower than in the rebellious lands. (By contrast, 90% of those living in Antebellum Virginia in the early 19th century were enslaved.)

The 1898 Spanish-American War was the springboard to Cuban independence (in 1902). From then, 2 men dominated Cuban politics: Fulgencio Batista and Fidel Castro.

Batista ruled 1933–1944: at first through puppet presidents, then elected as president himself in 1940 on a populist platform. Aiming for a comeback after an extended holiday in the US, Batista ran again in 1952. Facing electoral defeat, Batista staged a coup. He corruptly ran the country until December 1958, when he fled from Cuba’s imminent future.

Castro’s revolution was anti-communist America’s worst nightmare: a heretic in the backyard. The CIA, with Eisenhower’s approval, set itself upon turning back the clock.

President Kennedy and his advisors were lukewarm on the planned invasion of Cuba that was financed by the US but fronted by disgruntled natives; and it came as no surprise to Castro: US national newspapers repeatedly ran stories on the planned invasion.

In the end, Kennedy believed that if he canceled the operation, he would be accused of being soft on communism; a political liability particularly hard to overcome in those days. As it turned out, Kennedy himself doomed the invasion’s prospects by failing to provide supportive air strikes. The invaders were quickly put paid by Cuban aerial assault.

This was a struggle of Cuban patriots against a Cuban dictator. While we could not be expected to hide our sympathies, we made it repeatedly clear that the armed forces of this country would not intervene in any way. ~ UN ambassador Adlai Stevenson, dissembling for the US on 15 April 1961

Thwarting the invasion made Castro a national hero, strengthening his leadership. It also solidified relations between Cuba and the Soviet Union, leading to the Cuban missile crisis in 1962.

A month before Soviet nuclear missiles were discovered in Cuba, US intelligence concluded that the Soviets would do no such a thing. After they were found, US intelligence predicted that the Soviets could not be made to withdraw them. Wrong on both counts.


The CIA was pessimistic from the get-go about American military involvement in southeast Asia. The agency was badly used there by their paymasters.

Foolhardy President Johnson ignored intelligence and plunged ahead. A delusional and determined President Nixon doubled down and lost.

Meanwhile, the CIA was actively corrupting political dynamics throughout Central and South America, including Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, Brazil, Chile, Columbia, and Peru.

The CIA destroyed constitutional government in Chile by sponsoring a 1973 coup d’état against socialist president Salvador Allende, who had been elected in 1970. Allende’s successor, General Augusto Pinochet, was a fascist dictator who unleashed a reign of terror upon his own people; quite the opposite of Allende’s popular program toward social justice.

From the early 1990s, the CIA crippled itself with personnel attrition. ~7% of its clandestine operatives walked out the door every year. It had not many more than a thousand spies.

Over the years, the CIA became less willing to hire those who did not fit into is bureaucratic culture. Very few of its officers could speak or read the foreign languages where intelligence capabilities were critical. In consequence of its cultural myopia, the CIA misread the world.

Guard against arrogance, avoid underestimating the enemy, and be well prepared. ~ Mao Zedong


Worldwide, computerized technology now allows states to surveille its citizens, and others, with relative ease. As America illustrates, government surveillance does nothing to keep its people safe. It only helps the state operate with impunity, outside all bounds of propriety: which is precisely the point.