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America’s Unknown Intelligence Czar
George Henry Sharpe’s Bureau of Military Information helped win the Civil War—and is especially worth remembering today
October 2004 | Volume 55, Issue 5
To the student of intelligence history, there has been something eerily familiar in the recent headlines about American intelligence failures. Panels investigating weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and the September 11 terrorist attacks have zeroed in on a bugbear that has plagued America’s spy business many times in the past, from the Battle of Bull Run to Pearl Harbor to the Cold War. As John Lehman, a former Secretary of the Navy and a member of the independent 9/11 commission, put it, “We need to ensure the fusion and sharing of all intelligence that could have helped us to avoid 9/11.”
Historical analogies are never of course exact. But in raising the issue of “fusion”—intelli-speak for making sure that intelligence from all sources is brought together, correlated, and cross-checked—Lehman and the 9/11 panel put their finger on a lesson that American intelligence agencies have repeatedly learned only to forget and painfully learn again. And that is that some of the worst intelligence debacles occur not because there are no warnings but because the warnings are misinterpreted, mishandled, or ignored. Or, to use a hackneyed but nonetheless apropos phrase, because the people in charge didn’t “connect the dots.”
Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, for example, Secretary of War Henry Stimson brought in a tough-minded New York lawyer, Alfred McCormack, to investigate how the warnings had fallen through the cracks and to recommend new procedures to make sure such a mistake didn’t happen again. McCormack, armed with a steel-trap mind and an instant commission as a colonel, found that bureaucratic squabbling and rivalries had prevented the sharing of essential information among the different agencies that collected intelligence. Worse, he found that no single office or commander was responsible for making sure that important intelligence even got to the top military and government officials who needed it.
A century before September 11 there was another instance when a few officials had to find out how to make an intelligence system work.
His chief recommendation was that a new “Special Branch” be established. It would receive military, economic, political, and even psychological intelligence about foreign nations and build a total intelligence picture from all these disparate bits and pieces. Special Branch would every day sift, analyze, and digest all the important incoming reports and distribute its findings directly to top officials.
Staffed with some of the best minds in the American legal profession, whom McCormack had recruited, the Special Service Branch (later renamed the Special Branch) was soon being called by those in the know “the best law office in Washington.” The results were instant and dramatic, and the new system contributed greatly to the success with which intelligence was put to use through the rest of the war, in particular intelligence from decoded Japanese signals.
But the mistakes that Special Branch was intended to correct were repeated in the immediate postwar period. The establishment of the CIA in 1947, at the beginning of the Cold War, was another attempt to ensure centralized coordination and routing of intelligence. But as the 9/11 commission and others have found, over the years it too succumbed to turf battles that hindered effective sharing of intelligence across bureaucratic lines of authority. One of the chief recommendations now under debate is the creation of a new post of a single “director of national intelligence” or “intelligence czar,” to make sure information from all sources—spies, informers, satellites, communications intercepts, and so on—is brought together and analyzed as a whole.
Long before Pearl Harbor or September 11 there was another instance when a few officials recognized that the key to making an intelligence system work lay in being able to “connect the dots.” It too was a lesson that had been learned the hard way—and then was promptly forgotten once the crisis was past. It too was the brainchild of an extremely toughminded civilian lawyer turned Army colonel, who brought an outsider’s perspective and a skill at dealing with complex, often messy problems to what had been customarily the narrow purview of military men.
Not many people today have heard of George H. Sharpe. I hadn’t heard of him until I happened to read a short CIA historical report that—in little more than a passing reference—credited him with having established “the first ‘all-source intelligence’ organization in U.S. history.” Sharpe was the director of the Bureau of Military Information of the Union’s Army of the Potomac during the Civil War. In contrast to all the dubious and romantic tales of femme-fatale spies and daring moonlight dashes on horseback that still choke the literature of Civil War espionage, the story of Sharpe’s unheralded reign as an intelligence chief is one of quiet, meticulous analysis—which nonetheless produced a series of coups that helped change the course of the Civil War from Gettysburg to the final siege of Richmond.