State Department Counterintelligence
State Department Counterintelligence
Gentlemen don't read each other's mail.
-HENRY L. STIMSON
Secretary of State, 1929
Counterintelligence Then and Now
In August 1914, as President Woodrow Wilson publicly pledged to maintain US neutrality, the opening salvos of a world war erupted across Europe. German secret agents had already traveled to America to sabotage industrial targets, foment labor strikes at munitions plants, and promote pacifistic propaganda in the news media. Wholly one-third of the American population was foreign born or of foreign parentage-a ready-made army of fifth columnists, or so the German high command hoped. One audacious scheme called for German agents to operate a biological warfare laboratory secretly in the outskirts of Washington, DC. Its purpose was to produce anthrax delivery systems to infect American horses and mules heading to the battlefields of northern France. Other disinformation campaigns, sabotage plots, and cases of espionage, while less ambitious, were more successful.
Imperial Germany's secret operatives needed genuine US passports that could be easily altered to cross the Atlantic successfully and operate clandestinely in the United States.
Authentic-looking travel documentation was absolutely essential in escaping detection by the British security services and America's fledgling counterintelligence agencies. At the time, the United States and its military lacked an organized, cohesive counterintelligence program. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) didn't exist, and other federal agencies were ill-prepared to deal with the phenomenon of passport fraud tied to espionage. Moreover America had no federal statutes on the books to arrest and convict foreign spies operating in the country. Those would come later in the form of the Espionage Act of 1917.
By 1916, it was clear that the Kaiser's General Staff Political Section was actively engaged in numerous schemes to target unwary US citizens, both in the United States and Germany, to obtain US passports for its spies. To combat the new threat, Secretary of State Robert Lansing created the Secret Intelligence Bureau in order to investigate and identify individuals who were residing in the United States under false claims of US citizenship.
Joseph "Bill" Nye was appointed the first chief special agent of the Department of State, and his mission was to assist the secretary of state on all intelligence and security matters relating to the department. With a small staff of special agents and secretaries, Nye implemented changes that injected safeguards into the passport issuance program by requiring more extensive proof of US citizenship, including photographs. Secretary Lansing also authorized Agent Nye to wiretap the German ambassador's telephone line to provide daily transcripts. Two field offices were opened: one in Washington, DC, and the other in New York City, since the Secret Intelligence Bureau agents had to work closely with their US Secret Service and Postal Inspection Service counterparts monitoring the activities of German diplomats and suspected spies.
By the mid-1920s, the Secret Intelligence Bureau, now commonly called "the Force," was capitalizing on its investigative expertise in dealing with German passport fraud. It collaborated with the newly created FBI to identify and deport Russian NKVD agents who attempted to enter the United States illegally to engage in espionage. The US government was so worried about Bolshevik subversive activities that for many years American communists were denied passports. The US government feared that if American citizens traveled to Russia for revolutionary training and willingly turned over their valid passports to NKVD agents, those same passports would be used by Russian agents to enter the United States under the original owner's identity. Secret Intelligence Bureau agents also conducted