Spy Games: The Origin Stories of 8 of the World’s Elite Spy Agencies

Spy Games: The Origin Stories of 8 of the World’s Elite Spy Agencies

Gregory Gann - August 24, 2017

Ranking the world’s intelligence agencies is difficult at best. Secrecy is the cornerstone of any intelligence service, which makes evaluating their performance a tenuous endeavor. Typically, most agencies’ successes remain in the shadows, unless revealing an operation produces a desired result, whereas their failures often generate spectacular public exposure. Thus, this list is not a ranking of organizations based on achievements, rather an examination of the world’s premier agencies who’s founding involved a unique or interesting story. For example, Israel’s Mossad is one of the world’s leading intelligence organizations, but “it was established as a new agency in 1949” doesn’t make for a fascinating origin tale.

Arranged randomly, the following agencies all share this connection, either through founding, public exposure, or a ridiculous genealogy. Several organizations trace their roots into the 1800s, intelligence failures birthed others, and one rose out of a ridiculously complicated bureaucratic mess.

MSS (Ministry of State Security), China

The origin of China’s Ministry of State Security (MSS) is particularly bloody. Founded in July 1983, the MSS’s roots extend back to the Second Sino-Japanese War. On February 18, 1939, the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Secretariat established the Central Department of Social Affairs (CDSA). This organization’s responsibilities included intelligence and counter-intelligence operations, and its first director, Kang Sheng was not a novice to espionage.

Spy Games: The Origin Stories of 8 of the World’s Elite Spy Agencies
Emblem of Ministry of State Security of the People’s Republic of China. Wikipedia.org

Kang joined the Communist Party of China (CPC) in the mid-1920s, steadily rising through the ranks as an organizer, and through adroit political maneuvering. He headed the Special Work Committee, the party’s espionage and security arm, from 1931 to 1933, relocated to Moscow, where he established the Office for the Elimination of Counterrevolutionaries in 1936. He aided the Soviet secret police (NKVD) in purging Chinese and studied their methods. Kang returned to China in 1937, shifted his allegiance to Mao Zedong, and headed the CDSA until 1945. Employing the NKVD’s tactics ruthlessly, Kang’s brutality worried the CPC’s senior leaders, including Mao, and he was replaced by his deputy, Li Kenong until the CDSA’s dissolution two years later.

The People’s Republic of China (PRC), founded in 1949 divided intelligence responsibilities between the Ministry of Public Security and the Central Military Commission Intelligence Department, headed by Li Kenong. Li’s appointment as director of the new CCP Central Investigation Department (CID) in 1955, consolidated foreign intelligence operations into central office. This ended in 1967 when Kang orchestrated the CID’s leadership fall, which placed the agency under military leadership. Two years later, military intelligence absorbed the CID altogether.

Kang’s death in 1975, followed by Mao’s a year later, initiated a slow revision to China’s approach regarding intelligence work. The rehabilitation of former officials, intelligence cadres, and operatives imprisoned by Mao or Kang sparked a renewed call for a centralized espionage agency, and in 1983, the PRC merged the remainder of CID and the Ministry of Public Security’s counter-intelligence elements into the Ministry of State Security.

Spy Games: The Origin Stories of 8 of the World’s Elite Spy Agencies
Australian Secret Intelligence Service Logo. Wikipedia.org

ASIS (Australian Secret Intelligence Service), Australia

Unlike other agencies on this list, the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) does not have a centuries old pedigree, or a birth messy enough to appall the most experienced midwife. There is no story of an individual single-handed fathering the organization, nor an earthshaking event that spurred their creation. What the agency does have, however, is the absolute blackest beginnings of all.

Intelligence services and clandestine operations go hand in hand, but when Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies established ASIS in on May 13, 1952, he might have gone a bit too far. Modeled after the United Kingdom’s Secret Intelligence Service, the organization’s charter empowered the new agency “to obtain and distribute secret intelligence, and to plan for and conduct special operations as may be required,” alongside the specific requirement to, “operate outside Australian territory.” This was neither earthshaking or unusual in a Western-style democracy.

Menzies, however, decided that Secret Intelligence Service meant exactly that: secret. No public announcement followed. But, hey, spy agency, right? Maybe the smart thing is concealment? Apparently, Menzies agreed and decided not to inform most of the government either. This continued for twenty years.

ASIS’s quiet existence ended abruptly in 1972. A story published in The Daily Telegraph asserted the shadowy agency not existed, it recruited agents from Australian Universities through clandestine means. Somewhat predictably, bedlam followed. Official inquiries formed, and in 1974 the Prime Minister launched an investigation into the country’s intelligence agencies. Two years later, the commission completed its investigation, and Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser finally acknowledged the existence of ASIS in 1977, twenty-five years after the organization began.

Spy Games: The Origin Stories of 8 of the World’s Elite Spy Agencies
Agency emblem of the Bundesnachrichtendienst. Wikipedia.org

BND (Bundesnachrichtendienst), Germany

No government voluntarily submits their intelligence organizations to minute scrutiny. Germany, however, would probably prefer an extensive, exquisitely detailed, public hearing analyzing current operations rather than suffer another lengthy hot-coal dragging regarding the Bundesnachrichtendienst’s (BND) origins. If you, dear reader, have a sudden suspicion involving Nazis and disturbing legacies, rest assured that the BND’s story will not disappoint.

Founded on April 1, 1956, the BND is the descendent of a World War II military intelligence unit. Designated Foreign Armies East (FHO), this unit developed strategic and force-strength analyses of the Soviet military. Unlike other Reich intelligence groups, the FHO had a nasty habit of developing accurate reports that conflicted with rear-echelon assessments, or with what Hitler wanted to hear. The FHO’s chief, Reinhard Gehlen, was a professional soldier with a genuine flair for intelligence intrigues, and he predicted both the Reich’s defeat and the emergence of the Cold War as early as 1942.

Gehlen quietly prepared for the future, and copied the FHO’s files, which contained a wealth of political and military information regarding the Soviet Union. Hitler dismissed Gehlen in April 1945, but the FHO Chief was already a step ahead. Gehlen and his staff surrendered to the American Army the next month, securing their safety in exchange for the FHO files buried in water-tight drums throughout the mountains. It was a priceless intelligence windfall for the West whose intelligence networks did not extend into Eastern Europe or the Soviet Union.

Gehlen worked with US intelligence over the following year, and in late 1946, established the “South German Industrial Development Organization.” Known informally as the “Gehlen Organization” or the “Org,” the intelligence unit reported to the US Army until 1947, and the Central Intelligence Agency until 1956. Initially, the Org was the most effective western intelligence group throughout the Soviet’s Eastern Bloc. Gehlen did, however, make several crucial decisions that returned to haunt both himself and Germany.

Gehlen recruited former members of the Schutzstaffel (SS), Sicherheitsdienst (SD), the SS’s intelligence branch, and the Gestapo, including an SS officer who commanded an Einsatzgruppe unit. When several spectacular failures exposed the organization to the public, criticism quickly followed. The Org’s existence as an apparatus of the CIA ended, and transferred to the authority of West Germany. This included the staff and operatives. Gehlen remained at the head of the newly founded BND until his retirement in 1968.

Spy Games: The Origin Stories of 8 of the World’s Elite Spy Agencies
Seal of the C.I.A. – Central Intelligence Agency of the United States Government. Wikipedia.org

CIA (Central Intelligence Agency), U.S.A.

No one enjoys failing publicly, intelligence agencies least of all. The United States Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) early record, however, suggests otherwise. The CIA either misread, failed to predict, failed to prevent, or actively caused, Soviet: takeovers of Czechoslovakia and Romania, Berlin blockade, atomic weapon development, influence in engendering the Korean War. This, non-comprehensive, list of fiascos illustrates the CIA’s disastrous world stage debut, and each of these early failures is a consequence of the agency’s messy, shockingly inept, bureaucratic origins.

The attack at Pearl Harbor laid the groundwork for a complete transformation in US espionage. Official investigations concluded US intelligence apparatuses possessed the information but failed to compile or inform key decision-makers through a lack of agency coordination. Franklin Roosevelt responded by creating the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) on June 13, 1942, and appointing Colonel William J. Donovan to its helm. The Joint Chiefs of Staff despised OSS’s independence, oftentimes restricting intercepted intelligence. J. Edgar Hoover hated the new office. Roosevelt mollified him by allowing Hoover to retain control over Latin American espionage.

In 1945, Donovan submitted plans to FDR for an independent peacetime intelligence agency. The plans mysteriously leaked to the press, who referred to the agency as “American Gestapo.” The Joint Chiefs officially shelved the idea. Donovan tried again when FDR died, but Truman disliked both the proposal and Donovan, ordering the OSS’s disbandment and firing its chief. This decision sparked one of the greatest bureaucratic feeding frenzies in the history of Washington DC.

No one disputed the importance of a coordinating intelligence group. The real question was, “Who controls it?” Hoover fought for an FBI-controlled agency. The Joint Chiefs argued that intelligence remained a military function. The State Department stated foreign operations fell under their jurisdiction. Even Postmaster General Robert E. Hannegan tried to claim the new agency. Truman responded by dividing the OSS between the State and War Departments. Three months later, Truman conceded dissolving the OSS was a mistake, and established the National Intelligence Authority (NIA), which included the Central Intelligence Group (CIG).

Hoover was furious. The military undermined the new agency whenever possible. Twenty months later, the National Security Act of 1947 revised the NIA, and the CIG transformed into an independent institution, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). An agency that inherited a collapsed espionage network, bitter internal enemies, and an opponent who boasted developed intelligence agencies and experienced operatives.

Spy Games: The Origin Stories of 8 of the World’s Elite Spy Agencies
Logo of the Directorate-General for External Security (DGSE). Wikipedia.org

DGSE (General Directorate for External Security), France

France’s convoluted history of foreign espionage dates back to 1871, following their stunning upset in the Franco-Prussian War. Poor intelligence and a vast underestimation of the enemy’s capabilities played a monumental role in their loss, and the French high command authorized creating a military intelligence section (Deuxième Bureau, DB) less than a month afterward. The Deuxième Bureau’s responsibilities expanded quickly, and counter-espionage and military statistics sections soon followed. In the wake of 1894’s Dreyfus Affair, however, counter-intelligence shifted to the Ministry of the Interior, the Sûreté générale handled counter-espionage and the pursuit of foreign spies, and the Deuxième Bureau retained only a statistical section, which was disbanded in 1899.

Reactivated in 1907, the Deuxième Bureau primarily worked with counter-espionage units belonging to Interior Ministry or mobile special operations units along France’s border. Four years later, the government divided foreign and interior operations between the Ministry of War, and therefore DB, and the Ministry of Interior. This clear division of responsibilities ended in 1915, and things get a little… weird thereafter.

1915: Section de Centralisation du Renseignement (Central Intelligence Section, SCR) created.
1917: Sûreté Nationale commissioner placed at the head of criminal police, general intelligence, propaganda, and counter-espionage, including the Section de renseignements (Intelligence Section, SR) and SCR.
1934: Organization renamed Direction Générale de la Sûreté nationale (DGSN).
1935: Police de l’Air, the territorial police, and the police carrier-pigeon service, placed under the DGSN.

1936: Service de centralisation des renseignements (Central Intelligence Service, CE) established.
1937: Government declares territorial surveillance the sole responsibility of police. New organization, the Bureau central de Renseignements (Central Intelligence Bureau, BCR) established, includes an SCR special section devoted to preventative defense.
1940: Vichy France established Bureau des Menées Antinationales (Bureau of Anti-National Activities, BMA). Free French government-in-exile in London established Service de Renseignements (SR).
1941: SR renamed Bureau Central de Renseignements et d’Action Militaire (BCRAM).
1942: BCRAM renamed Bureau Central de Renseignements et d’Action (BCRA).

1944/45: Service de Documentation Extérieure et de Contre-Espionnage (External Documentation and Counter-Espionage Service, SDECE) established, successor to BCRA.
1965/66: SDECE placed under the Ministry of Defense following their role in the kidnapping, and probable murder, of Mehdi Ben Barka.
1982: Direction générale de la sécurité extérieure (General Directorate for External Security, DGSE), established.

Spy Games: The Origin Stories of 8 of the World’s Elite Spy Agencies
Logo for Secret Intelligence Service, MI6. Wikipedia.org

MI6 (Military Intelligence, Section 6), United Kingdom

Arguably the most famous of the world’s espionage agencies, MI6 is the United Kingdom’s (UK) storied foreign intelligence apparatus. As previously noted, gauging the success of an intelligence agency is difficult, but given that several organizations modeled themselves after the UK’s, it doesn’t take a spymaster to discern MI6’s elite status. Unlike other agencies, portions of MI6’s origin story remain the subject of scholarly debate. This is largely the result of the British Official Secrets Act, which empowered State security regarding intelligence, but has the nasty side effect of locking information away and then forgetting about it. UK security aside, most of MI6’s origin story is publicly available.

Similar to other nations, the UK used various intelligence units throughout its history, but a permanent agency didn’t evolve until 1909 when the War Office created the Secret Service Bureau, the brainchild of a former police detective, William Melville. Melville joined the Metropolitan Police (Scotland Yard) in 1872, and, over the course of a thirty-one-year career, rose to prominence and fame through a series of highly publicized investigations and plot foiling’s (at least one of which Melville instigated). Key to the future of MI6, however, was Melville’s role as Superintendent of Scotland Yard’s Special Branch, which performed numerous intelligence operations typically handled by agencies at the national level. Thus, Melville’s retirement announcement in 1903 surprised both the British public and press. Melville was only fifty years old; an extremely successful, powerful, man at the peak of his career. The move simply didn’t make sense.

Behind the scenes, however, the beginning of the UK’s intelligence agencies was unfolding. Secretly recruited by the government, Melville headed a new intelligence unit for the War Office, MO3, later redesignated MO5. He ran both intelligence and counter-intelligence from a non-descript flat in London, and quietly lobbied the government to establish a permanent agency. In October 1909, the government established the Secret Service Bureau, comprised of nineteen departments, MI1 through MI19.

This is where the scholars get argumentative. Melville retired in 1917, and died in 1918, but whether he was the head of the entire organization, who used the code name “M,” or the agency’s chief detective with his own section remains a matter of debate.

Spy Games: The Origin Stories of 8 of the World’s Elite Spy Agencies
Logo of the Research and Analysis Wing, Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India. Wikipedia.org

RAW (Research and Analysis Wing), India

Founded in 1968, India’s Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) is one of the most secretive of the world’s agencies. Unlike other intelligence services, RAW reports directly to the office of the Prime Minister rather than an oversight committee or department director. This enables RAW to apply a degree of secrecy to both their internal workings and operations that several competing agencies can only dream about. Although RAW’s heritage extends into the 1800s, the agency is a relatively recent development, and its origin is rather straightforward. Of course, two monumental foreign intelligence failures less than four years is probably enough to convince most nations to change their strategy.

India’s Intelligence Bureau (IB), established in 1887, spent its infancy primarily as a British apparatus designed to monitor Russian activity. The Bureau evolved and expanded throughout the decades, particularly in the years prior to, and during, World War II. Indian independence in 1947, however, devastated the agency. British departure removed a huge swath of trained operatives, and the agency’s new budget was a massive reduction. Combined with the sharp drop in staff and funding, the IB’s equally sudden increase in responsibilities set the stage for disaster.

The 1962 Sino-Indian War is what happens when an underfunded military and an underfunded intelligence agency pursue an expansionist policy while completely misreading their opponent’s intentions. In other words, India’s ambitions could not compare with the Chinese military buildup IB completely missed. Several intelligence fiasco(s) played out in the Indo-Pakistani War of 1965, including: the abject failure to predict the Pakistani invasion, which caught India completely off guard, and pre-positioned heavy artillery at Chumb escaped detection, inflicting significant losses.

The fallout from these two failures spurred India’s creation of a standalone agency responsible for foreign intelligence. In 1968, the Indira Gandhi administration established RAW, allocating roughly $300,000 to the new unit. This is a far cry from contemporary estimates that place RAW’s estimated operating budget around $400,000,000.

Spy Games: The Origin Stories of 8 of the World’s Elite Spy Agencies
Emblem of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service. Wikipedia.org

GRU (Main Intelligence Agency), Russia

France’s convoluted intelligence history is fairly impressive, but nobody wove a complicated web of overlapping intelligence agencies like Russia/Soviet Union. The following is almost certainly an incomplete list.

1802: Ministry of Internal Affairs founded; acquires numerous powers over the next century, including various intelligence functions.
1810: The Expedition for Secret Affairs (military intelligence) established.
1812: Expedition for Secret Affairs renamed the Special Bureau.
1815: Special Bureau renamed First Department, headed by General Chief of Staff.
1836: Military intelligence transferred to Second Department (renamed and transferred repeatedly over the next seventy years).
1906: Imperial Military Intelligence controlled by Fifth Department.
October 1918: Registration Agency (RU) established.
November 1918: Imperial military intelligence and the RU replaced by Main Intelligence Directorate of the Soviet Union (GRU).

1917: Ministry of Internal Affairs renamed People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD); controls police, secret police, and performs counter-intelligence.
1920: Special Section of the Cheka established, includes an internal Foreign Department (FD) responsible for foreign intelligence.
1922: State Political Directorate (GPU) established, merges FD with NKVD; responsible for foreign intelligence, and the liquidation of assorted ‘enemies of the people’.
1923: Foreign Department renamed Foreign Department of Joint State Political Administration (OGPU). 1934: OGPU reincorporated into NKVD, renamed Main Directorate for State Security (GUGB).
February 3, 1941 to July 20, 1941: NKGB established and disbanded; responsible for military counter-intelligence, controlled Soviet secret police, intelligence and counter-intelligence.
February 3, 1941: Special Sections of NKVD assigned to military counterintelligence (CI). GUGB separated from NKVD and folded into NKGB.
July 20, 1941: NKVD and NKGB reunited.
1942: CI sections returned to NKVD.
1943: CI sections transferred to the People’s Commissariats of Defense and the Navy, becoming SMERSH (“Death to Spies”). NKVD separated from the NKGB.
1943 to 1946: NKGB re-established and disbanded.
1946: NKVD renamed Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD). NKGB renamed as the Ministry of State Security (MGB).
1953: MGB folded into MVD.

1954: Police and Security divided. USSR Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) controls criminal militia and correctional facilities. USSR Committee for State Security (KGB), controls the political police, intelligence, counter-intelligence, leadership security, and secret communications.
1991: KGB divided into Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (FSB) and Foreign Intelligence Service of the Russian Federation (SVR RF)
1992: GRU folded into Russian Ministry of Defense.
2010: GRU renamed Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces.