Home News Stories 2006 August A Byte Out of History - Intel Operations

A Byte Out of History - Intel Operations

A Byte Out of History
Our Intel Operations Over the Years


Spy cameras seized during World War II
Spy cameras seized during World War II  

We asked our historian, Dr. John Fox, to address FBI intelligence operations from an historical perspective. We think you’ll be interested in his comments.

“No question,” says Dr. Fox, “We’ve always been both a law enforcement and an intelligence agency. Intelligence is basically about understanding threats—the motives, modus operandi, leadership, and activities of those who seek to do us harm. You simply can’t neutralize national security and criminal threats as we have—whether terrorist groups or spy networks or gangsters—without intelligence. It frames both your strategy and your tactics because it drives your understanding of the threats and how to stop them. So intelligence is not foreign to the FBI. It goes hand-in-hand with our law enforcement mission. That’s why we’ve had intelligence-related responsibilities from our earliest days.”

An example?
“Think about how we took on the Mafia. We began an extensive intelligence gathering operation on key mob leaders and groups beginning in the 1950s and gained a series of new legislative tools starting in the late 1960s. Then we began working to infiltrate mob operations. We had agents like Joe Pistone going undercover as mobsters—incredibly difficult and dangerous assignments. Slowly these agents gained the trust of key players, learning first-hand how the organization worked and getting evidence of crimes yet to be committed. It was a beautiful job of play-acting—much like the spy game. We couldn’t even have considered such an operation if we didn’t know enough about organized crime to play the part in the first place. We’re still doing that undercover work today.”

What about foreign operatives here in the U.S.?
“The best example, I believe, was our spy work against the KGB throughout the Cold War. By the late 1940s we had neutralized several Soviet spy rings, which allowed us to be more proactive in gathering intelligence that helped us understand the KGB. We had any number of double agents ferreting out secrets and fueling our larger intelligence operations. Traditional investigative work like analyzing clues and following leads were important, but we were also decoding messages, conducting sophisticated surveillance, building our informant base. Every step of the way we were passing on vital information to decision-makers in our government, our fellow agencies, and our allies overseas. Our focus wasn’t so much on getting arrests—although that was part of our toolkit—it was on gathering intelligence on what the Soviets were up to so we could keep U.S. secrets close to the vest and protect our nation’s interests. And with the nuclear capabilities of both nations, the stakes were high.”

And today?
“I think we’re seeing the same thing today, but at a greater and more sophisticated level—whether it’s our work to stop terrorists or foreign intelligence operations or criminal enterprises. Take violent gangs, for example. We’ve got a highly intelligence-driven approach. We’re not just going out and arresting a gang member or two or ten when we have the evidence. We’re learning everything we can about these gangs—their origins, their lingo, their symbols, their connections, their players—and sharing that among ourselves and with our partners so we can have a unified attack to dismantle these gangs. Simply put, intelligence has been a big part of our history…and it’s going to be an even larger part of our future.”

For more examples of our intelligence work over the years, see these stories: