Editor’s note: The following essay is an excerpt from the new Hoover Press book Eyes, Ears, and Daggers:  Special Operations Forces and the CIA in America’s Ongoing Struggle against Terrorism.

Each war tells us something about the way the next war will be fought.


One of the things we have seen since 9/11 is an extraordinary coming together, particularly the CIA and the military, in working together and fusing intelligence and operations in a way that just, I think, is unique in anybody’s history.

—Robert Gates 

When Nathan Hale stood on the scaffold in 1776 and uttered his immortal regret that he had only one life to give for his country, he came to embody a timeless patriot. In retrospect, Hale was also a progenitor of the soldier-spy fusion that has become so noteworthy in the early twenty-first-century conflict with jihadi terrorism. Days before his execution, the young military officer had volunteered to dress in civilian clothes, go behind enemy lines, and scout out the Red Coats’ plans at the start of the American Revolution. His fellow officers shrank from the mission out of fear of dying from an ignominious execution by hanging, rather than an ennobling death on the battlefield. The British caught and hanged the twenty-one-year-old captain from the Seventh Connecticut regiment for spying.

Captain Hale’s secret mission is significant for its present-day relevance as well as its patriotism. His intelligence gathering inside British-occupied New York City blurred the lines separating soldier and spy. It was an early version of “sheep dipping,” the contemporary practice of informal reidentification in which soldiers become spies. More than two centuries after the Yale-educated schoolteacher’s death, America’s counterterrorism campaign underwent a similar obscuring over the roles between elite warriors and intelligence officials in the antiterrorism battle. This military-intelligence overlap was not fore­ordained. Quite the contrary, the two communities—military and intelligence—were often at odds throughout their histories. Their contemporary blending, indeed, might just be a temporary realignment. A return to their traditional rivalry is not out of the question.

Both the Special Operations Forces (SOF) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) are of relatively recent formation. Their antecedents, nonetheless, stretch back further than the immediate post–World War II era, which marked the creation of both entities. Irregular armed forces have been a part of America’s military traditions from as early as the Revolutionary War up to the current battle against violent Islamist extremism in the Middle East, Africa, and other parts of the world. Spying enjoys a less-rich tradition in America’s past, although it, too, underwent a quantum leap during the Cold War.

Both communities—special warriors and intelligence officers—have served as the nation’s eyes, ears, and daggers, often in close cooperation, but occasionally at cross-purposes, as this account traces and analyzes. Yet in bureaucratic tug-of-wars, neither the Special Operations Forces nor the Central Intelligence Agency has been each other’s main antagonist. Rather, they have clashed with their closest competitor. For SOF, this has meant turf battles with the regular military forces. For the CIA, it has meant bureaucratic tussles chiefly with the State Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), not the Pentagon. The SOF-CIA partnership grew to become a highly effective weapon against jihadi terrorists bent on murdering or converting other populations to their twisted version of Islam. The September 11, 2001, terrorist attack, in fact, heralded a new era for the two secretive security arms of the U.S. government, an era that is the subject of this anatomy.

The attack on the Twin Towers shelved America’s Cold War thinking about security. By adopting an intelligence-driven, targeted counterstrike weapon against terrorists, the United States went from a Cold War Goliath to a lithe and nimble bearer of a deadly sling, thanks in no small measure to the SOF and CIA contribution. Much of the reorientation developed from the close SOF-CIA linkage, as is well known to both communities. The purpose of this narrative is to sketch very briefly the warrior-spy connection before and then more fully after the formation of the Special Operations Forces and the Central Intelligence Agency. Even a “wave-top” skimming of this complex interaction suggests that their history is notable for instances of cooperating, competing, circumventing, and even cutting each other out of the action. By revisiting and appreciating their respective histories prior to their partnering to combat Islamist terrorism, the author hopes to provide a clearer understanding of their interaction and offer lessons for the future.

Spying, Binoculars, and Telegraph Cables

Students of America’s cloak-and-dagger operations have a nodding acquaintance with espionage that dates to the country’s war of independence from Britain. Nathan Hale’s behind-the-lines spying inaugurated the fledgling nation’s quest for intelligence about its powerful foe. In another league from Hale’s snooping was a renowned spymaster, string-pulling his agents for information. George Washington not only stood first in the hearts of his countrymen but also ranked first among the Founding Fathers in his fascination with and reliance on espionage. Young Washington learned firsthand the importance of intelligence during the French and Indian War (1754–63), when he served under British general Edward Braddock, whose defeat and death at Fort Duquesne (now Pittsburgh) stemmed, in part, from ignorance about his enemy’s forces.

When Washington assumed command of the Continental army, he resolved to obtain intelligence about his British opponent by every means. Spies were dispatched to learn British movements and designs. Worried about English spies and American sympathizers with the Crown, he took measures to prevent them from conveying information to the British about the Continental army’s maneuvers and activities. The Continental Congress also grasped the importance of foreign intelligence. It established the Committee of Secret Correspondence, which one contemporary historian characterized as “the distant ancestor of today’s CIA.” 2 The group corresponded with American well-wishers who lived in Europe so as to gain intelligence about the European governments’ predisposition toward the American Revolution. General Washington was naturally far more interested in military information.

So while Nathan Hale won enduring fame, Washington commanded a constellation of spies who proved much more successful than the young Connecticut officer. This eyes-and-ears network also performed counterespionage, detecting the treason of Benedict Arnold—the infamous American turncoat who switched to George III’s side. General Washington also utilized agents to spread bogus information about his army’s strength and intentions. He even deceived British generals about his strategy until the trap was sprung, leading to the surrender of Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown and the American defeat of Great Britain.

As the first president of the new Republic, George Washington retained his interest in things clandestine. His secret service fund, a line item in the nation’s budget, grew to nearly 12 percent, or about $1 million, by his third year in office. President Washington disbursed these monies for bribing foreign officials and even ransoming sailors held by the Barbary pirates. These predators operated out of North African city-states and preyed on American merchant ships. Despite the contemporary view of late-eighteenth-century gentility, Congress understood the necessity of covert measures; it cut the nation’s first commander-in-chief considerable slack in espionage endeavors. Congress merely required the president to certify the amounts expended but permitted him to conceal the purpose and recipients. These and related operations foreshadowed those practiced after the Central Intelligence Act of 1949.3

George Washington’s role as spymaster notwithstanding, his successors did not follow his pioneering role. If anything, they allowed the U.S. intelligence capacity to atrophy with dire consequences. America’s dismal intelligence service contributed to the lack of adequate defense for the White House, which the British burned during the War of 1812. President James Madison barely escaped the capital in advance of Britain’s capture and torching of his residence. Behind their Atlantic moat, Americans seemed oblivious to the importance of intelligence about their potential adversaries. Even during the Mexican War (1846–48), the commanding officer, General Zachary Taylor, obtained his knowledge of the Mexican army through his binoculars. His deputy, Winfield Scott, did gain approval from President James Polk to set up the Mexican Spy Company, which relied on the outlaw Manuel Dominguez and his bandit followers to hand over military intelligence about Mexican defenses. It was not the last time that U.S. presidents and their military officers paid off less-than-savory agents to spy.

The Civil War (1861–65) marked a period of mostly amateurish spying by both sides. In fact, Northern and Southern military officers and civilian officials regularly scoured each other’s newspapers to glean information about their foes. Then, as now, the press’s war coverage revealed actionable intelligence. Journalists published details on the troop strength, location, and destination of military units. This breach of security concerned both sides. Washington and Richmond tried to shut down the newspapers. Political leaders did hire spies to collect information on their enemies. Field commanders likewise set up their own intelligence operations to do reconnaissance on their adversaries and to limit knowledge of their respective forces. The history of Union and Confederate espionage, with its passions and bumbling, is ably told by Alan Axelrod in The War between the Spies. But as Axelrod acknowledged, the spies were amateurs, “usually ordinary soldiers and civilians who, on one or more occasions, did some spying.” 4 His account overflowed with assassins, conspirators, and secret service forerunners—all part of present-day intelligence and covert operations.

After the Civil War, investments in spies, espionage, and covert operators dwindled through the end of the nineteenth century. Some noteworthy departments were established, however. The Secret Service came into existence in 1865, first as an agency to investigate forgeries in the new paper currency that had appeared three years earlier. After the Secret Service uncovered a plot in 1894 to assassinate President Glover Cleveland, it assumed the mission of safeguarding the president, the vice president, and their families, as well as the integrity of the American currency. Its dual missions became permanent after the assassination of President William McKinley in 1901.

In the course of the 1880s, both the U.S. Navy and U.S. Army established intelligence departments. The Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) collected information about foreign navies that might be useful in time of war. Likewise, the Military Intelligence Division, staffed initially by one officer, gathered material on foreign armies of possible use to the War Department and the Army. For the U.S. Navy, the ONI played a pivotal role in the extraordinary naval expansion at the dawn of the twentieth century. Theodore Roosevelt, as assistant secretary of the Navy (well before his presidency), capitalized on ONI reports to push for a giant shipbuilding program that saw the Navy’s blue-water fleet mushroom in capital ships.5 As president, Roosevelt was not averse to using underhanded measures to accomplish his goals abroad.

Covert action, in fact, played a hand in the White House’s acquisition of the Panama Canal Zone. Unmistakable U.S. sympathy for the Panamanian insurrectionists encouraged them to revolt against their Colombian rulers in 1903. Next, Washington ran interference for the rebels. The Colombian commander of the offshore fleet was bribed to sail away without shelling the Panamanians. The U.S. Navy also blocked Colombia’s ships from landing reinforcements to reestablish its rule. The United States formally recognized the Republic of Panama in 1904, leased the ten-mile strip on each side of the proposed waterway, and resumed construction of the transoceanic canal, which was completed in 1914.

During World War I, U.S. intelligence efforts foiled Germany’s operations to influence American public opinion against Great Britain. German agents tried to shift U.S. sentiment toward Germany and away from Britain. Along with planting pro-German articles in American newspapers, the Kaiser’s agents blew up two large munitions factories in New Jersey. Despite Berlin’s sabotage and media manipulations, which often backfired against Germany, Washington lacked a specialized espionage department. As a defense, President Woodrow Wilson ordered the Secret Service to investigate German businessmen paying subsidies to German-American organizations. The U.S. Justice Department, moreover, linked the German embassy with subversive actions.6

The Army and Navy beefed up their military intelligence proficiency during the war. Each branch employed more than a thousand personnel by the armistice signing in 1918. A prominent innovation during the war was the first signals intelligence office, whose focus was on preventing domestic subversion. The signals intelligence specialists deciphered encrypted messages and handed over evidence to the Bureau of Investigation, the forerunner of the FBI. All the fledgling counterespionage departments were very busy because of the large number of German immigrants living within the United States.

Once at war against Imperial Germany and its allies in 1917, the Wilson administration engaged in a covert operation with Britain to persuade Russia to remain in the war after its February Revolution, which overthrew the tsar in early 1917. Washington spent modest sums of money to place pro-war newspaper articles in the Russian press. London took an even more extravagant approach by wining and dining Russian government officials. Still, Washington’s modest contribution to persuading the Russian Provisional Government to stay in the fight against the Central Powers came to naught. By mid-1917, the Russian army collapsed as a fighting force after repeated defeats at the hands of the German forces and their Austro-Hungarian allies. Moscow’s contribution to the Allied cause ended when Vladimir Lenin’s Bolsheviks tossed out the provisional government in the October Revolution. Soviet Russia’s new rulers soon broke ranks with the Allies and concluded a separate peace with Berlin in order to concentrate on consolidating their power amid the ensuing civil war, which engulfed much of the country. The capitalist West had no sway with Communist Russia. After Lenin settled for a harsh peace with the Central Powers, the Allies slugged it out with Germany, now freed from the two-front war.

As expected, the end of the war brought a hasty return to business as usual for the United States. It made severe reductions in the nation’s military and intelligence capabilities. The federal government quickly slashed funding for intelligence as well as demobilized its armed forces. Unlike other major powers, America still lacked a specialized foreign espionage organization at the close of the war. The war had recorded a temporary boost in manpower and effectiveness of army and naval intelligence, but peace scuttled that progress. Nor were the 1920s and early 1930s the propitious environments for setting up overseas spy operations. President Wilson subscribed to a brave new world of open diplomacy openly arrived at, departing from what the old powers of Europe did behind closed doors. Moreover, America looked inward as isolationist sentiments took hold among political elites and ordinary people alike. American naiveté about the outside world came into sharp relief when Henry L. Stimson (Herbert Hoover’s secretary of state and Franklin Roosevelt’s secretary of war) averred that “gentlemen don’t read each other’s mail.” 

That said, the United States did score an intelligence coup during the first year of the incoming Warren Harding administration. At the Washington Conference on the Limitations of Armaments in 1921, Americans decrypted Japanese telegraph cables from Tokyo. Knowledge of Japan’s real diplomatic bargaining position enabled Washington to stand firm on Japanese demands to exceed the 10:6 naval ratio of capital ships with the United States.8 The U.S. position prevailed. The Japanese, whose real threshold was revealed in the decoded message, accepted the lower ratio. American intelligence breakthroughs, however, were all too rare in the interwar period, as the attack on Pearl Harbor attested. But they were not unprecedented once the Pacific war started. The American proficiency in cracking the wartime Japanese codes enabled Washington to learn of Tokyo’s plans for the conquest of Midway Island. The astounding U.S. naval victory over the Imperial fleet was, in part, made possible by foreknowledge of Japan’s strategy. America’s signals intelligence came of age during the Pacific war.

Protected by two vast oceans, the United States progressed through the first 170 years of its history without a meaningful national intelligence enterprise. The American embrace of the Marquess of Queensberry rules for collecting intelligence lingered into the twentieth century before the gloves finally came off. It was World War II and the Cold War aftermath that revolutionized American attitudes.9 Before considering the extraordinary transformation that the 1941–45 war brought to American intelligence resources, however, it is appropriate to shift attention to the other pillar of the contemporary SOF-CIA alignment—the irregular warfare tradition.

Irregular Warfare as an American Tradition

Unlike spying, America’s irregular warfare tradition enjoys a deeper cultural heritage. Its lineage stretches back to at least the French and Indian War, when regular soldiers embraced the tactics of Native American warriors. Rather than following the parade-ground drills of troops marching into battle, the Native American tribesmen resorted to ambushes, small-unit attacks, and firing from behind trees to catch their adversaries off guard. Both French and American soldiers observed, adopted, and put into practice this hit-and-run warfare.

When the American Revolution broke out, the colonists relied on different tactics. George Washington fought a largely con­ventional conflict along European lines. But as every schoolchild knows, other American forces fired from behind cover as they fell back when confronted with superior Red Coat formations. Some legendary local commanders emerged. Francis Marion, the “Swamp Fox,” disrupted British control of the Carolinas with surprise attacks and unexpected maneuvers. Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys kept the Red Coats off balance with hit-and-run assaults in New England. These unconventional leaders waged an insurgency against an army of occupation that demanded loyalty to the Crown and payment to George III’s treasury.

Decades later, the American Civil War witnessed a host of irregular warfare practitioners on both sides of the four-year conflict. These fighters operated behind the lines of the conventional infantry and cavalry forces. The renegades raided, disrupted governance, and tied down disproportionate numbers of regular forces who strove to kill or capture their tormentors. John Mosby and his Mosby’s Rangers, as well as Nathan Bedford Forrest and his raiders, carved out bloody reputations as effective tacticians of guerrilla warfare in the cause of the Confederate States. From the Union’s regular army came such scorched-earth commanders as Philip Sheridan, who pillaged and burned the Shenandoah Valley, and William Tecumseh Sherman, who laid waste to the Deep South in his infamous March to the Sea.

After the Civil War, the U.S. Army turned its attention back toward the untamed forests and plains in the West to secure a continental passage to California. Irregular-fighting tactics played a prominent role in the westward conquest of the American continent until near the end of the nineteenth century. Conflicts raged against the indigenous inhabitants as land-seeking settlers streamed from the Eastern Seaboard to the interior plains. Most engagements were small-unit actions in which the U.S. Army borrowed American Indian tactics of stealth, surprise, and ambush. Not all the engagements ended in a U.S. victory. General George Custer’s defeat at the Little Bighorn, a loss born of hubris, poor planning, and tactical errors, has served as a cautionary lesson for students of war ever since 1876.

The conclusion of the so-called Indian Wars marked the eclipse of the irregular-fighting capacity among U.S. military forces for nearly a quarter of a century. The American traditions of frontier warfare and inherent Yankee ingenuity, however, are traits that must not be dismissed without brief reference. These frontier soldiers possessed the qualities of stealth, surprise, and self-reliance that later generations of Special Operations Forces would draw on and incorporate into the present-day antiterrorism campaign and counterinsurgency operations.

Not until the Spanish-American War would U.S. ground forces wage a modern-day counterinsurgency against guerrillas. The Philippine War (1899–1902) found the United States on the receiving end of an insurgency fought by a determined band of Filipinos for the right of independence against colonial-type rule from Washington. Ultimately, the United States prevailed in its counterinsurgency campaign by a mixture of innovative techniques and military competency.10 Afterward, the U.S. military occupied Haiti in an operation that turned into an early version of nation building on the impoverished island. The Marine Corps soon found itself embroiled in a string of small conflicts in Cuba, Honduras, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic. Marines wrote of their experiences in the “Banana Wars” in a series of articles, which were distilled into their encyclopedic Small Wars Manual in 1940, a classic handbook for security operations in underdeveloped lands.

The lessons learned from the Philippines and Caribbean interventions were overshadowed by the mammoth conventional world wars of the twentieth century. World War I’s trench warfare swept away the lingering familiarity with irregular fighting. Counterinsurgency proficiency no longer seemed relevant with the introduction of biplanes, tanks, and massed infantry charges across no-man’s-lands in the teeth of machine gun fire. The toll in lives was so steep that the war did seem to be a harbinger of lasting peace. After all, the war had been fought to end wars. Immediately following World War I, the United States demobilized its land forces and looked inward to the Roaring Twenties and then the Great Depression. In a short time, though, hypernationalism, rampant militarism, and wicked ideologies stalked the European and Asian landscapes, drawing America into a second world conflagration. This time, however, the events during World War II prompted some American leaders to turn to irregular warfare tactics.

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