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The act of securing information of a military or political nature that a competing nation holds secret. It can involve the analysis of diplomatic reports, publications, statistics, and broadcasts, as well as spying, a clandestine activity carried out by an individual or individuals working under secret identity to gather classified information on behalf of another entity or nation. In the United States, the organization that heads most activities dedicated to espionage is the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

Espionage, commonly known as spying, is the practice of secretly gathering information about a foreign government or a competing industry, with the purpose of placing one's own government or corporation at some strategic or financial advantage. Federal law prohibits espionage when it jeopardizes the national defense or benefits a foreign nation (18 U.S.C.A. § 793). Criminal espionage involves betraying U.S. government secrets to other nations.

Despite its illegal status, espionage is commonplace. Through much of the twentieth century, international agreements implicitly accepted espionage as a natural political activity. This gathering of intelligence benefited competing nations that wished to stay one step ahead of each other. The general public never hears of espionage activities that are carried out correctly. However, espionage blunders can receive national attention, jeopardizing the security of the nation and the lives of individuals.

Espionage is unlikely to disappear. Since the late nineteenth century, nations have allowed each other to station so-called military attachés in their overseas embassies. These "attachés" collect intelligence secrets about the armed forces of their host country. Attachés have worked toward the subversion of governments, the destabilization of economies, and the assassination of declared enemies. Many of these activities remain secret in order to protect national interests and reputations.

The centerpiece of U.S. espionage is the CIA, created by the National Security Act of 1947 (50 U.S.C.A. § 402 et seq.) to conduct covert activity. The CIA protects national security interests by spying on foreign governments. The CIA also attempts to recruit foreign agents to work on behalf of U.S. interests. Other nations do the same, seeking to recruit CIA agents or others who will betray sensitive information. Sometimes a foreign power is successful in procuring U.S. government secrets.

One of the most damaging instances of criminal espionage in U.S. history was uncovered in the late 1980s with the exposure of the Walker spy ring, which operated from 1967 to 1985. John A. Walker Jr. and his son, Michael L. Walker, brother, Arthur J. Walker, and friend, Jerry A. Whitworth, supplied the Soviets with confidential U.S. data including codes from the U.S. Navy that allowed the Soviets to decipher over a million Navy messages. The Walker ring also sold the Soviets classified material concerning Yuri Andropov, secretary general of the Communist party until 1984; the Soviet shooting of a Korean Airlines jet in 1983; and U.S. offensives during the Vietnam War.

John Walker pleaded guilty to three counts of espionage. He claimed that he had become an undercover informant for the thrill of it, rather than for the money. He was sentenced to a life term in federal prison, with eligibility for Parole in ten years. Michael Walker pleaded guilty to aiding in the supply of classified documents to the Soviets. He was able to reach a plea bargain under which he was sentenced to twenty-five years in prison. Arthur Walker was convicted of espionage in Norfolk, Virginia. His conviction was affirmed in United States v. Walker, 796 F.2d 43 (4th Cir. 1986). Like John Walker, he was sentenced to a life term in federal prison. Jerry Whitworth received a sentence of 365 years for stealing and selling Navy coding secrets (upheld in United States v. Whitworth, 856 F.2d 1268 [9th Cir. 1988]).

The ring's ample opportunity to exploit the lax security of the Navy left a legacy of damage. The armed forces frantically scrapped and rebuilt their entire communications system, at a cost to taxpayers of nearly $1 billion. The U.S. department of defense (DOD) had to withdraw security clearances from approximately 2 million military and civilian personnel worldwide. The DOD also reduced the number of classified documents in order to limit the number of remaining security clearances.

These reforms only addressed the tip of larger, underlying problems. The exploits of Aldrich Hazen Ames brought security problems within the CIA to the fore. As a double agent, Ames sold secrets to Moscow from 1985 to the end of the Cold War and beyond. As a CIA agent and later a CIA official, Ames was responsible for, among other things, recruiting Soviet officials to do undercover work for the United States. His position put him in contact with Soviet officials at their embassy in Washington, D.C. While in the embassy, he discussed secret matters related to U.S. intelligence. The CIA's lack of security measures, which usually consisted of no more than the collection of questionable lie detector data, gave Ames the opportunity to illegally acquire a fortune.

In 1986, the CIA suspected the presence of a mole (a double agent with the objective of rising to a key position) in the system. Investigators could not be certain of the mole's identity but determined that something in their operations had gone awry. Two officers at the Soviet Embassy who had been recruited as double agents by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) had been recalled to Moscow, arrested, tried, and executed. Years later, a major blunder on Ames's part led the CIA to suspect him of leaking information that may have contributed to the death of the agents. Ames had told his superiors in October 1992 that he was going to visit his mother-in-law in Colombia. He actually went to Venezuela, where he met a Soviet contact. His travels were under surveillance, and the CIA took note of the discrepancy.

By May 1993, Ames had become the focus of a criminal investigation dubbed Nightmover. Investigators found that Ames's continued activity with the Soviets had led to the execution of at least ten more agents. Ames's continuing financial struggle necessitated that he continue to sell secrets. While criminal espionage brought him more than $2.5 million from the Kremlin, Ames's carelessness with the money led to his demise. According to court documents, Ames and his wife spent nearly $1.4 million from April 1985 to November 1993. Ames's annual CIA salary never exceeded $70,000.

When Ames pleaded guilty on April 28, 1994, to a two-count criminal indictment for espionage and Tax Evasion, government prosecutors sought to negotiate the plea to avoid a long trial. A trial, they feared, could force intelligence agencies to disclose secrets about the Ames case, which had already embarrassed the CIA. Escaping the ordeal of a drawn-out trial, Ames was sentenced to life in prison.

As a result of the Ames case, the CIA made a number of changes, including requiring CIA employees to make annual financial disclosures and tightening the requirements for top security clearance.

Several espionage cases since the 1980s have caused the United States additional embarrassment. In 1985, Jonathan Pollard, an American Jew, was arrested for spying for Israel. Pollard served as an intelligence-research specialist for the Navy's Field Operational Intelligence Office during the 1980s. He provided Israel with about 360 cubic feet of documentation in exchange for about $50,000 in cash. He was eventually arrested by U.S. officials, and, in 1987, pleaded guilty to spying on the United States. Pollard claimed that his actions were acceptable because Israel was an ally and because the Israeli agent with whom he exchanged documents already received sensitive information from the United States. Nevertheless, Pollard received a life sentence.

Pollard in 1995 was granted Israeli citizenship while he continued to serve in a U.S. prison. In 1998, then President William Jefferson Clinton committed a potential blunder when he agreed upon the request of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to review Pollard's case. The promise sparked a heated debate in the United States among analysts. Clinton was able to avoid the issue when Netanyahu was replaced as prime minister in 1999.

Another incident in late 1999 also caused embarrassment to the Clinton administration. In December of that year, 60 year-old Wen Ho Lee was arrested and charged with mishandling classified nuclear secrets at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. The charge followed months of controversial investigations by the FBI and the u.s. justice department into what some government officials believed was a spy operation supported by China. Considered a security risk, Lee was placed, by the government, in guarded solitary confinement for nine months in a Santa Fe, New Mexico, county jail cell with no opportunity to raise the $1 million bail. Lee was held on 59 counts of illegally copying design secrets as well as destroying seven tapes, to which his plea was not guilty. The government then offered Lee a plea bargain if he pleaded guilty to one count of downloading classified data to a non-secure computer. Lee finally agreed to plead guilty to this minor felony charge. As part of the plea bargain, Lee was also required to provide detailed information as to what happened to the tapes.

The Justice Department soon came under fire for its treatment of Lee. U.S. District Judge James A. Parker, the presiding federal judge in New Mexico who had been assigned the case, questioned why the government had chosen not to pursue a voluntary Polygraph test or allow Lee to make statements about why he had downloaded such sensitive material onto an unsecured computer or destroyed certain tapes. Even President Clinton, who had appointed then-Attorney General Janet Reno, disagreed with her about Lee being denied bail for so long. Both Clinton and Parker agreed that if these things were provided, the previous nine months would have been much less taxing for Lee.

The FBI endured yet another humiliating incident in 2001 with the arrest of a high-ranking counterintelligence officer for the bureau, Robert Hanssen. Hanssen received hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash and diamonds from Russia in exchange for U.S. secrets. U.S. officials indicated that Hanssen's spying reached a peak during the 1980s, and his actions caused the deaths of at least three American spies overseas. According to the federal prosecutor in the case, Hanssen used the United States' "most critical secrets" as "personal merchandise." A U.S. district judge in 2002 sentenced Hanssen to life in prison.

Further readings

Adams, James. 1994. The New Spies. London: Hutchinson.

Doyle, David W. 2001. True Men and Traitors: From the OSS to the CIA, My Life in the Shadows. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Gerolymatos, Andre. 1986. Espionage and Treason. Amsterdam: Gieben.

Hartman, John D. 1993. Legal Guidelines for Covert Surveillance Operations in the Private Sector. Boston: Butter-worth-Heinemann.

Loundy, David J. 2003. Computer Crime, Information Warfare, and Economic Espionage. Durham, N.C.: Carolina Academic Press.

Udell, Gilman G. 1971. Laws Relating to Espionage, Sabotage, Etc. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.

U.S. House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. 1995. Legislative Proposals Relating to Counterintelligence: Hearing before the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence House of Representatives. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Volkman, Ernest. 1995. Espionage. New York: Wiley.

——. 1994. Spies. New York: Wiley.


Central Intelligence Agency; Federal Bureau of Investigation; Hiss, Alger; Justice Department; Rosenbergs Trial.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


n. the crime of spying on the Federal government and/or transferring state secrets on behalf of a foreign country. The other country need not be an "enemy," so espionage may not be treason, which involves aiding an enemy. (See: treason, sedition)

Copyright © 1981-2005 by Gerald N. Hill and Kathleen T. Hill. All Right reserved.
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