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News | May 25, 2014

John Jay: Founding Father and spy catcher

By DIA Public Affairs

John Jay is best known for his roles as a Founding Father, the first Chief Justice of the United States and a co-author of the Federalist Papers. But not many know that some historians consider him to be the first chief of American counterintelligence.

During his time as a delegate at the First and Second Continental Congresses, Jay actually argued for reconciling with the British Crown. Once the Declaration of Independence was signed, however, he became a fervent separatist and fiercely supported independence.

Upon independence, the Continental Congress created the Committee for Detecting and Defeating Conspiracies. Jay was an active member and informal leader of the committee, conducting hundreds of investigations, arrests and trials involving influential businessmen and political figures loyal to the British Crown.

The committee was made up of networks established in New York for the purpose of collecting intelligence, detaining British spies and couriers, and investigating Tory sympathizers. Jay himself organized clandestine operatives and ran dangerous counterintelligence missions. Over the course of its existence, the committee heard more than 500 cases involving disloyalty and subversion.

Because of his central role in the committee’s activities, Jay is considered the father of American counterintelligence.

Editor’s Note: This article is the seventh of 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.