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News | May 11, 2014

Secret Committees

By DIA Public Affairs

Although the United States’ first formal intelligence agency wasn’t born until the creation of the Office of Strategic Services in 1942, American leaders had long recognized the need for intelligence, beginning with the Founding Fathers.

Even before signing the Declaration of Independence, the Second Continental Congress created the Secret Committee Sept. 18, 1775. Allotted significant power, the committee was tasked with covertly obtaining military supplies and then distributing them to privateers chartered by the Continental Congress. In order to hide the fact that the Continental Congress was the actual purchaser of supplies, the committed used foreign flags to protect its vessels and transactions were organized through intermediaries. The committee also sent agents overseas to gather intelligence about British ammunition stores.

On Nov. 29, 1775, the Continental Congress appointed another secret committee “for the sole purpose of corresponding with our friends in Great Britain, Ireland, and other parts of the world,” called the Committee of Secret Correspondence. The objective of this correspondence was to collect intelligence regarding the extent of sympathy toward the American Revolution. The Committee of Secret Correspondence was lead by Benjamin Franklin, the only member experienced in foreign affairs. Arthur Lee, of the Lee family of Virginia and who was practicing law in London at the time, became the committee’s first European agent. Franklin also corresponded with two of his trusted friends in Europe, Dr. Jacques Barbeu-Dubourg in Paris, and Charles W.F. Dumas in the Hague, asking them to sound out the possibility of an alliance with the U.S.

The French dispatched Julien Achard De Bonvouloir to America to study the situation there with respect to covert aid and political support, and the committee sent their own secret agent, Silas Deane, to France for the same purpose. Deane’s mission resulted in the creation of a dummy corporation, Hortalez and Cie, through which the U.S. purchased French military supplies in exchange for commodities such as rice and tobacco.

On April 17, 1777, the Committee of Secret Correspondence was renamed the Committee of Foreign Affairs, but retained its intelligence function. 

Editor’s Note: This article is the fifth in a series highlighting the origins of American military intelligence and how it led to the birth of DIA. The American military intelligence system during the Revolutionary War was an active and effective instrument that helped counterbalance British numerical and operational superiority by informing American generals about their movements while it also deceived the British into making strategic errors. From the Revolutionary War to the early years of the Cold War interest in and resources devoted to military intelligence surged during wartime and diminished or disappeared during peacetime. This lack of a sustained commitment to military intelligence contributed to several intelligence failures. These issues were not resolved until the establishment of DIA in 1961, which would serve as the centralizing hub of all military and defense intelligence.