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“Intelligence Officer”: a gentleman and patriot, or a scoundrel seeking reputational refuge?

The Oxford English Dictionary gives interesting examples of how the term intelligence officer has changed its meaning:

Intelligence Officer

An example from American usage in 1847 still conveys the eighteenth-century sense of a person who simply transmits information. Then there is a reference to the poet Rupert Brooke, who in the Great War served as an “intelligence officer” on H.M.S. Vengeance. As the history of the Royal Navy and Admiralty demonstrates, intelligence officers by the twentieth century were expected to handle secretly obtained information and to interpret the raw data they received.

Social class and the flight from ignominy

The term intelligence officer can also be regarded as symptomatic of a search for respectability. The word intelligence may, in the eyes of critics, seem risible in relation to secret cognitive activity, but to its promoters it is more socially acceptable than the words spy or agent.

For in the beginning, no gentleman wanted to spy. Ramon Carranza, for example, came from a Spanish noble family with a naval tradition. In 1898 Cadiz had to dragoon him into the organizing of a spy ring against the United States. He desperately begged for a ship to command, not agents to run.

Disdain for espionage was longstanding and persisted into modern times. James Fenimore Cooper’s American Revolution spy was a patriot, yet “belonged to a condition in life which rendered him the least reluctant to appear in so equivocal a character” (The Spy, 1821). To the historian Richard Rowan more than a century later, spies “are a veritable insecticide upon the Great Man theory of history” (Story of Secret Service, 1938). The term officer, with its connotation of being “an officer and a gentleman” (‘embodying the civilized qualities supposedly characteristic of both’, as the OED entry states), pulled one up the social scale even if everyone knew that one could be an officer and a cad.

Your modern spook is hypersensitive on the issue, not wishing to be confused with the riff-raff hired to do the dirty work, those shady “agents” who betray their own countries or causes. In MI6 and the CIA, they insist on being called “officers”. Over in Europol, they launched a category called “bold” officers. These were police intelligence specialists seconded from member states of the European Union whose name were, literally, printed in bold on official communiqués, to demonstrate their high status. The FBI’s detectives similarly run away from the simple term agent. They are special agents .

Students of professionalization will see a familiar pattern here. Just as lawyers, teachers, and undertakers asserted professional standards and formed associations to protect their reputations and defend their interests, so intelligence officers went on the prowl for the trappings of high standing. Some people saw through this. U.S. Secretary of State Henry Stimson is held to have remarked, on the occasion of his dissolution of America’s codebreaking Black Chamber in 1929, “gentlemen do not read each other’s mail”. But over sixty years later, Peter Grose, the biographer of the twentieth century’s most potent spymaster, Allen Dulles of the CIA, titled his book Gentleman Spy. How Dulles would have loved the first word, and hated the second!

Pride and prejudice

The Anglo-American intelligence relationship was firmly founded on the mutuality of interest of the North Atlantic upper middle class. Senior American intelligence officers like the Eton-educated Leland B. Harrison in the Great War and Bill Donovan in the Second World War were ardent Anglophiles. They were enamoured with their Savile Row tailors, Mayfair clubs, and brushes with royalty.

There was also mutuality in nastiness. “Blinker” Hall, the Admiralty man who oversaw the breaking of German codes in the First World War, became associated with secret penetration of the labour movement and the organization of blacklists. General Ralph Van Deman of US military intelligence, much admired by his fellow intelligence officers in the UK, did exactly the same thing across the water. Gentlemen, indeed.

Prejudice and good intelligence (in the sense of objective analysis) do not go together, and prejudice lay at the very root of some British intelligence practices. Take the Official Secrets Act of 1911. It was based on the premise that the expansion in our spy bureaucracy meant dipping into the lower orders for recruits, and that you can’t trust the lower orders. The Cambridge spy ring lay over the horizon as an object lesson to the contrary.

The déclassé officers

It’s all changed now, to a degree. The Bay of Pigs debacle exposed the frailties of the Ivy League men who ran the CIA. The rise of computer and other technologies meant the demise of the humanities-educated gentleman in the US intelligence establishment. The USA’s demographic revolution means that Americans laugh up their sleeves at the idea of a “special relationship” with the white male clubland sleuths of the Mother Country. Philip Hayez from French intelligence has similarly derided British intelligence’s “Oxbridge delivery system”. The term intelligence officer is still with us, but its connotations are no longer the same.