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The Early History of 5 Spy Agencies

Most intelligence agencies in the U.S. government were formed to solve specific problems, or evolved from preceding organizations. There wasn’t always an FBI, for example. Before its founding, there was the Bureau of Investigation, whose members were drawn from the Secret Service. Most agencies operate in blackout conditions, and it takes a lot of work to uncover the details. National security journalism is cumulative, and reporters were crowdsourcing long before the word existed. With that in mind, here are first-mentions of spy agencies in the New York Times.

1. The Secret Service

Though it's no longer considered part of the intelligence community, the Secret Service was actually the first intelligence agency of the United States. The first mention of the “Secret Service Division” of the Department of the Treasury was on September 18, 1865. In a round up of dispatches concerning courtroom proceedings, fallout from “the rebellion,” sanitation reform, and pardons, is the mention of a “secret service division of the Solicitor's office,” which has been informed “of the arrest of several persons engaged in counterfeiting.” (The men arrested: Jokes, who first escaped apprehension by leaping from a train; and Tobias C. Eckert, who did not.)

The United States Secret Service doesn’t get its first feature story until April 11, 1874. The lead sentence: “Of the thousands who daily traverse Broadway in the vicinity of Bleecker Street, few, if any, are aware of the close vicinity of an institution whose ramifications, extending from Maine to California, and from Minnesota to Texas, carry terror and defeat into the ranks of outlaws, whose secret haunts no other organization in the land could reach or break up.” The piece never really settles down, though a few interesting bits of early Secret Service slang are introduced: counterfeiters are part of “the profession.” Groups of counterfeiters are called “gangs.” To be “pulled” means to be arrested. Fraudulent bills are called “queers.” When a “shadow” trails a suspect, and is certain that the suspect is carrying queers, he “gives the office” (or: makes a signal) to other agents to make an arrest. Counterfeiters are broken into four groups: “dealers,” who make the deals but never carry the “goods”; “boodle-carriers,” who keep the counterfeit money on their person; “shovers,” who move the money from the boodle-carrier to the buyer; and “engravers,” who are the rarest and most talented of the bunch.

Also given in the story is the address of Secret Service headquarters: “No. 56 Bleecker Street, near Crosby.” So much for secrecy.

2. The National Security Agency

The NSA, whose purview concerns signals intelligence, is the successor to the dysfunctional Armed Forces Security Agency. (Gen. Walter Bedell Smith, who rebuilt and strengthened the CIA, was also responsible for restructuring and creating the NSA.) There are few agencies in the government as successfully secretive as the NSA, once known as the Bureau of Ships when money needed to be allocated, and once informally called No Such Agency (because it didn’t officially exist), and whose members “never say anything.”

Its first mention in the New York Times is on December 4, 1954, in a short piece noting the upcoming trial of Joseph S. Petersen, an ex-Agency employee who allegedly stole classified material. The NSA is given no explanation—only a name—and even the most eagle-eyed reader of the Times should have been baffled by the heretofore unmentioned and entirely unknown federal agency. Weeks later, it is described only as “a communications monitoring service.” The following month, when the employee is given 7 years in prison, hints of the NSA’s purpose are given in Times coverage. The material stolen concerned “communications intelligence activities of the United States and foreign governments.” The documents contained “the secret code of the Dutch Government and an analysis of the movement of North Korean personnel,” as well as “a Chinese telegraphic code.” Petersen claimed to have taken the sensitive documents to better prepare for a course he was teaching at the NSA.

3. The National Reconnaissance Office

The U.S. Air Force and Central Intelligence Agency founded the NRO in 1961 as a joint project. Its existence was so secret that even its letterhead was classified until 1995. Its first mention in the New York Times was in 1977, in an article describing the bitter infighting of the Carter White House over the possible creation of an “intelligence czar.” (Similar to the position Nixon pushed for as a way of getting J. Edgar Hoover out of the way, and similar to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence that was created in 2004.) The National Reconnaissance Office is here described, alongside the NSA, as providing “the nation’s basic communications, electronic and satellite intelligence.” It’s noted that the NRO falls under the aegis of the Secretary of Defense. That isn’t much to go on, but it’s something.

Readers of the Washington Post would have been better informed, as the agency had first been revealed in those pages in 1973 under the headline “A $1.5 Billion Secret in the Sky.” It wasn’t until 1985 that the New York Times got serious about the National Reconnaissance Office, when journalist James Bamford described the agency in great detail.

4. The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency

The National Imagery and Mapping Agency was formed in 1996 to give spies and soldiers a better view of the battlefield. Its first mention in the Times was late the following year, when Tim Wiener revealed that the agency “makes pictures and maps from space.”

By 2003, NIMA was a serious player in the spy game, and got a name change to reflect its importance—the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. Like the CIA, NSA, and FBI, it became a “three-letter agency.” (Yes, the hyphen is probably cheating.) The NGA first appeared in the New York Times that year, where its evolving mission was described: “The military is moving away from paper maps toward digital versions that combine all sorts of intelligence, from physical features, like the soil composition of a mountainside, to the precise location of intercepted cell-phone conversations.” The agency’s role in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq was also noted, including its ability to provide real-time “three-dimensional building-by-building maps of Baghdad.”

5. The Central Intelligence Agency

The National Security Act of 1947 was a sweeping reorganization of the national security apparatus of the United States. Among its provisions included the establishment of the U.S. Air Force, the formation of the National Security Council, creation of the Department of Defense, and the founding of a Central Intelligence Agency. As written in the act, the CIA sounds like a fairly modest organization. It is charged with advising the National Security Council and evaluating intelligence. Its powers are actually constrained; the act specifically prevents the CIA from having any “police, subpoena, law-enforcement powers, or internal-security functions.” But there is a provision to “perform such other functions and duties related to intelligence affecting the national security as the National Security Council may from time to time direct.” Not long after, they’re successfully launching coups d’état in Guatemala and Iran. (The only two successful coups ever initiated by the CIA.)

The Company first appeared in the New York Times in 1949, in a review of the book “Strategic Intelligence for American World Policy.” The author of the book describes the legal foundation of the CIA, and criticizes lawmakers for not giving the Director of Central Intelligence enough power, particularly with regard to overseeing the other members of the intelligence community. In many ways, the book seems prescient. Fifty-five years later, the same debate was ignited concerning the position of the Director of National Intelligence, which was established in 2004 and inherited oversight of the intelligence community.

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Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock
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Head Case: What the Only Soft Tissue Dodo Head in Existence Is Teaching Scientists About These Extinct Birds
Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock
Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock

Of all the recently extinct animals, none seems to excite the imagination quite like the dodo—a fact Mark Carnall has experienced firsthand. As one of two Life Collections Managers at the UK's Oxford University Museum of Natural History, he’s responsible for nearly 150,000 specimens, “basically all the dead animals excluding insects and fossils,” he tells Mental Floss via email. And that includes the only known soft tissue dodo head in existence.

“In the two and a bit years that I’ve been here, there’s been a steady flow of queries about the dodo from researchers, artists, the public, and the media,” he says. “This is the third interview about the dodo this week! It’s definitely one of the most popular specimens I look after.”

The dodo, or Raphus cucullatus, lived only on the island of Mauritius (and surrounding islets) in the Indian Ocean. First described by Vice Admiral Wybrand van Warwijck in 1598, it was extinct less than 100 years later (sailors' tales of the bird, coupled with its rapid extinction, made many doubt that the dodo was a real creature). Historians still debate the extent that humans ate them, but the flightless birds were easy prey for the predators, including rats and pigs, that sailors introduced to the isolated island of Mauritius. Because the dodo went extinct in the 1600s (the actual date is still widely debated), museum specimens are very, very rare. In fact, with the exception of subfossils—the dark skeletons on display at many museums—there are only three other known specimens, according to Carnall, “and one of those is missing.” (The fully feathered dodos you might have seen in museums? They're models, not actual zoological specimens.)

A man standing with a Dodo skeleton and a reconstructed model of the extinct bird
A subfossil (bone that has not been fully fossilized) Dodo skeleton and a reconstructed model of the extinct bird in a museum in Wales circa 1938.
Becker, Fox Photos/Getty Images

Since its extinction was confirmed in the 1800s, Raphus cucullatus has been an object of fascination: It’s been painted and drawn, written about and scientifically studied, and unfairly become synonymous with stupidity. Even now, more than 300 years since the last dodo walked the Earth, there’s still so much we don’t know about the bird—and Oxford’s specimen might be our greatest opportunity to unlock the mysteries surrounding how it behaved, how it lived, how it evolved, and how it died.

 
 

To put into context how old the dodo head is, consider this: From the rule of Oliver Cromwell to the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, it has been around—and it’s likely even older than that. Initially an entire bird (how exactly it was preserved is unclear), the specimen belonged to Elias Ashmole, who used his collections to found Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum in 1677. Before that, it belonged to John Tradescant the Elder and his son; a description of the collection from 1656 notes the specimen as “Dodar, from the Island Mauritius; it is not able to flie being so big.”

And that’s where the dodo’s provenance ends—beyond that, no one knows where or when the specimen came from. “Where the Tradescants got the dodo from has been the subject of some speculation,” Carnall says. “A number of live animals were brought back from Mauritius, but it’s not clear if this is one of [those animals].”

Initially, the specimen was just another one of many in the museum’s collections, and in 1755, most of the body was disposed of because of rot. But in the 19th century, when the extinction of the dodo was confirmed, there was suddenly renewed interest in what remained. Carnall writes on the museum’s blog that John Duncan, then the Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum, had a number of casts of the head made, which were sent to scientists and institutions like the British Museum and Royal College of Surgeons. Today, those casts—and casts of those casts—can be found around the world. (Carnall is actively trying to track them all down.)

The Oxford University Dodo head with scoleric bone and the skin on one side removed.
The Oxford University Dodo head with skin and sclerotic ring.
© Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History // Used with permission

In the 1840s, Sir Henry Acland, a doctor and teacher, dissected one side of the head to expose its skeleton, leaving the skin attached on the other side, for a book about the bird by Alexander Gordon Melville and H.E. Strickland called The dodo and its kindred; or, The history, affinities, and osteology of the dodo, solitaire, and other extinct birds of the islands Mauritius, Rodriguez and Bourbon. Published in 1848, “[It] brought together all the known accounts and depictions of the dodo,” Carnall says. The Dodo and its kindred further raised the dodo’s profile, and may have been what spurred schoolteacher George Clark to take a team to Mauritius, where they found the subfossil dodo remains that can be seen in many museums today.

Melville and Strickland described Oxford’s specimen—which they believed to be female—as being “in tolerable preservation ... The eyes still remain dried within the sockets, but the corneous extremity of the beak has perished, so that it scarcely exhibits that strongly hooked termination so conspicuous in all the original portraits. The deep transverse grooves are also visible, though less developed than in the paintings.”

Today, the specimen includes the head as well as the sclerotic ring (a bony feature found in the eyes of birds and lizards), a feather (which is mounted on a microscope slide), tissue samples, the foot skeleton, and scales from the foot. “Considering it’s been on display in collections and museums, pest eaten, dissected, sampled and handled by scientists for over 350 years,” Carnall says, “it’s in surprisingly good condition.”

 
 

There’s still much we don’t know about the dodo, and therefore a lot to learn. As the only soft tissue of a dodo known to exist, the head has been studied for centuries, and not always in ways that we would approve of today. “There was quite some consideration about dissecting the skin off of the head by Sir Henry Acland,” Carnall says. “Sadly there have also been some questionable permissions given, such as when [Melville] soaked the head in water to manipulate the skin and feel the bony structure. Excessive handling over the years has no doubt added to the wear of the specimen.”

Today, scientists who want to examine the head have to follow a standard protocol. “The first step is to get in touch with the museum with details about access requirements ... We deal with enquiries about our collections every single day,” Carnall says. “Depending on the study required, we try to mitigate damage and risk to specimens. For destructive sampling—where a tissue sample or bone sample is needed to be removed from the specimen and then destroyed for analysis—we weigh up the potential importance of the research and how it will be shared with the wider community.”

In other words: Do the potential scientific gains outweigh the risk to the specimen? “This,” Carnall says, “can be a tough decision to make.”

The head, which has been examined by evolutionary biologist Beth Shapiro and extinction expert Samuel Turvey as well as dodo experts Julian Hume and Jolyon Parish, has been key in many recent discoveries about the bird. “[It] has been used to understand what the dodo would have looked like, what it may have eaten, where it fits in with the bird evolutionary tree, island biogeography and of course, extinction,” Carnall says. In 2011, scientists took measurements from dodo remains—including the Oxford specimen—and revised the size of the bird from the iconic 50 pounder seen in paintings to an animal “similar to that of a large wild turkey.” DNA taken from specimen’s leg bone has shed light on how the dodo came to Mauritius and how it was related to other dodo-like birds on neighboring islands [PDF]. That DNA also revealed that the dodo’s closest living relative is the Nicobar pigeon [PDF].

A nicobar pigeon perched on a bowl of food.
A nicobar pigeon.
iStock

Even with those questions answered, there are a million more that scientists would like to answer about the dodo. “Were there other species—plants, parasites—that depended on the dodo?” Carnall asks. “What was the soft tissue like? ... How and when did the dodo and the related and also extinct Rodrigues solitaire colonize the Mascarene Islands? What were their brains like?”

 
 

Though it’s a rare specimen, and priceless by scientific standards, the dodo head is, in many ways, just like all the rest of the specimens in the museum’s collections. It’s stored in a standard archival quality box with acid-free tissue paper that’s changed regularly. (The box is getting upgraded to something that Carnall says is “slightly schmancier” because “it gets quite a bit of use, more so than the rest of the collection.”) “As for the specific storage, we store it in vault 249 and obviously turn the lasers off during the day,” Carnall jokes. “The passcode for the vault safe is 1234ABCD …”

According to Carnall, even though there are many scientific and cultural reasons why the dodo head is considered important, to him, it isn’t necessarily more important than any of the other 149,999 specimens he’s responsible for.

“Full disclosure: All museum specimens are equally important to collections managers,” he says. “It is a huge honor and a privilege to be responsible for this one particular specimen, but each and every specimen in the collection also has the power to contribute towards our knowledge of the natural world ... This week I was teaching about a species of Greek woodlouse and the molluscs of Oxfordshire. We know next to nothing about these animals—where they live, what they eat, the threats to them, and the predators that rely on them. The same is true of most living species, sadly. But on the upside, there’s so much work to be done!”

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How Promoting Handwashing Got One 19th Century Doctor Institutionalized
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Regardless of how often we actually do it, it's common knowledge that washing our hands before eating, after coughing, and after using the bathroom is good for us. But the connection between handwashing and health wasn't always accepted as fact. As Danielle Bainbridge explains in the PBS web series Origin of Everything, the first doctor to campaign for cleanliness in hospitals was not only shunned by other medical professionals, but ended up in an insane asylum.

Prior to the 19th century, handwashing primarily existed in the context of religious ceremonies and practices. It plays a role in Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Sikhism, and Buddhism in some form or another. But washing up to stop the spread of disease wasn't really a thing for most of history. People weren't aware of germs, so instead of microbes, they blamed illness on everything from demons to bad air.

Then, in 1846, a Hungarian doctor named Ignaz Semmelweis made a breakthrough observation. He noticed that women giving birth with the help of midwives were less likely to die than those treated by doctors. He determined that because doctors were also performing autopsies on victims of puerperal fever (a bacterial infection also known as childbed fever), they were somehow spreading the disease to their other patients. Semmelweis started promoting handwashing and instrument sterilization in his clinic, and the spread of puerperal fever dropped as a result.

Despite the evidence to support his theory, his peers in the medical community weren't keen on the idea of blaming patient deaths on doctors. Partly due to his commitment to the controversial theory, Semmelweis was shunned from his field. He suffered a mental breakdown and ended up in a mental hospital, where he died a few weeks later.

Germ theory did eventually become more mainstream as the century progressed, and washing hands as a way to kill unseen pathogens started gaining popularity. Even so, it wasn't until the 1980s that the CDC released the first official guidelines instructing people on best handwashing practices.

If this story suddenly has you in the mood to practice good hygiene, here's the best way to wash your hands, according to experts.

[h/t Origin of Everything]

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