Tuesday, September 15, 2020

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: Origins Of U.S. Intelligence Services




In  early June, 1942, a few days after I was born in Erie,
Pennsylvania, the U.S. Army requisitioned a private girl’s school
named Arlington Hall near its World War II military
headquarters in Virginia. The original facility was soon greatly
enlarged to accommodate about 5100 civilians and more than
2000 military personnel. Many of these men and women worked
for the Signal Intelligence Service (S.I.S.), the code-breaking
branch of the U.S. Army which specialized in “cracking” the
Japanese military codes, and intercepting Japanese secret
communications. (An equivalent site called Bletchley Park in
England similarly specialized in “cracking” the German codes.)  
Soon after the German “Enigma” code was deciphered by
British cryptologists at Bletchley Park, U.S. cryptologists, led by
legendary U.S. cryptologist William Friedman initially broke the
Japanese “Purple” diplomatic code. Later, in 1943, S.I.S.
cryptologists at Arlington Hall deciphered the Japanese military
code. These code-breaking achievements, it is generally agreed,
had much to do with the Allies winning World War II agains the
Axis Powers.

President Roosevelt asked General “Wild Bill” Donovan to create
the Office of Secret Services (O.S.S.) in 1942, and many of his
personnel were stationed at Arlington Hall. There was a great
deal of “top secret”Arlington Hall activity during World War II,
but there was also a small military hospital facility located there
which provided medical services to U.S. Army nurses, S.I.S. and
O.S.S. personnel, and to U.S. Chief of Staff General George
Marshall and his staff.

I hope the reader will excuse my mentioning this post hospital,
but it will explain my special interest in this location as the
center of World War II U.S. Signal Corps intelligence service
and partly the early days of the O.S.S. (which later became the
Central Intelligence Agency (C.I.A.). The commandant (post
surgeon) of this post hospital was my father, then Major
Hyman Lawrence Casselman, and I think I might say
accurately that I was among the youngest persons ever to visit
this secret site during wartime. By November, 1942, my
mother, my older brother Tom (he later grew up to be the
physicist who became one of the fathers of post-war top-secret
infrared detection technology), and I had moved to the
recently-constructed military officers family housing (today
converted to upscale condominiums) in nearby Fairlington,

S.I.S. chief Colonel William Friedman and his famed
cryptologist wife (also Colonel) Elizabeth (she helped the
British break the Enigma code) lived nearby, and became
good friends of my parents during their time in Fairlington).

Spending the first four years of my life there became a central
experience of my immediate family’s history, and although I
have only a few fleeting memories of that time, its narrative,
especially of my father’s fascinating experiences, has created
my lifelong interest in the origins of U.S. intelligence services.

The lore from World War II often construes the creation of the
O.S.S. as the beginning of the American spy system. It was true
that the U.S. had no organized or official spy network prior to
Pearl Harbor, (the FBI was supposed to do only domestic police
work), but we did have spies working for us in previous war
periods, including the Mexican War, Civil War,
Spanish- American War and World War I.

But what about before that? Particularly, did we have an
intelligence system in the Revolutionary War? The British
colonial army certainly did under the dashing Major John
Andre, who among other feats, lured Continental Army General
Benedict Arnold to defect and become our nation’s most
notorious traitor. (Major Andre was caught behind Continental
lines, and subsequently hanged as a spy.)

What did our commanding general, George Washington, have
to keep him abreast of secret British military movements?

Until relatively recently, we only knew about isolated individuals
such as Nathan Hale (hung by the British as a spy at age 21 after
declaring “I regret I have but one life to give for my country.”)
Scholars and historians, however, have unearthed a large-scale
and very secret spy network that reported directly to General
Washington and his staff throughout most of the Revolutionary

Known as the “Culper Ring,” a relatively large number of
patriots and apparent “loyalists” were recruited by Major
Benjamin Talmadge beginning in 1776 in Setauket, New York.
The fascinating story of this important part of the
Revolutionary War has now been told in books, documentaries
and a partly fictionalized TV series called “Turn: America’s
First Spies” (available in its entirety on a DVD set). [The TV
series, based on a novel, is centered on the character of
Abraham Woodhull, one of Talmadge’s actual first recruits
in Setauket, who is portrayed as a married man having an
affair with another man’s wife. The real Abraham Woodhull
was actually unmarried through the period of the series, and
is not known to have carried on any affairs, but that’s show

Operating initially without organized military intelligence in
1776, Washington was at a distinct disadvantage. There were no
modern communications then --- no telegraph, no telephones,
no computers. no radio or television, nothing but handwritten
or verbal communication carried by foot or horseback. Major
Benjamin Talmadge organized, at Washington’s order, not only
a true spy network, but developed a secret code for its
communications. (Washington did not ever know the true
identity of most of his spies, and some of their identities are
still not known today.) It was nothing like the vast operation at,
and emanating from, Arlington Hall more than 160 years later.

This Revolutionary War spy network had failures and tragic
losses, but it also had notable successes hat enabled General
Washington and his Continental Army to turn the war around
and ultimately succeed against the formidable British army.  

Cryptologists in 1942 or today would have little trouble
“cracking” our earliest secret code (General Washington was
known, for example, by the numbers “711”) but it worked just
fine in 1777-1781.

We live in a time when codes, spies and intelligence operate
technologically “light years” ahead of those earliest days of
our history, or even of those days not so long ago during
World War II. We also live in a time of global and national
threats when good intelligence might well mean the difference
between survival and annihilation.

That is why I think the very brief history recounted above is
worth telling.

Copyright (c) 2015 and 2020 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.

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