91/11/2001: The Day That Changed America
America's Spies
By Gary Drevitch
Reprinted from Scholastic News Senior Edition, December 3, 2001

Spies have helped defend the U.S. since the Revolutionary War.

Nathan Hale: He spied on the British during the Revolutionary War. Hale was eventually caught and executed. His famous last words: "I only regret I have but one life to give for my country."

Harriet Tubman: The famous conductor of the "Underground Railroad" who led hundreds of slaves to freedom, also was a valuable spy for the North during the Civil War.

Codebreakers: When British and U.S. scientists cracked the secrets of Germany's "Enigma" code-making machine (left), they could decode key enemy messages during World War II.

U2: In the 1950s, the U.S. launched "U2" spy planes, which are still in use today. The U2 played a key role in the 1962 Cuban missile crisis with the Soviet Union.
Their job is secret, but they're among the most important soldiers in the U.S. war on terrorism.

They can spot a bicycle from 200 miles in space. They can retrieve and read every e-mail someone has ever sent or received. They can listen to conversations with recorders small enough to slip inside a belt buckle.

Who are they? They are America's spies, members of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and the National Security Agency (NSA). These not-so-secret agents are among the most important soldiers the U.S. has in the war on terrorism.

Their Mission
The war on terrorism is a difficult job, but our spy agencies are "absolutely up to the challenge," says former CIA officer Eugene Poteat. "They can hire only the best." The spy business is called "intelligence gathering." In other words, intelligence agents gather information about people or countries believed to be a threat to our nation. The President and other leaders use that information to decide where to move soldiers or how best to protect people at home.

America's spies have three missions in the war on terrorism: to make sure we're not caught by surprise, to catch people plotting against the United States, and to support America's military action overseas.

While the intelligence community's existence is no secret, much of the work they do is. There may not be any announcements when spy missions are successful, but bad deeds are stopped and lives are saved.

A Little History
Spies have played a major role in American history since the Revolutionary War. In 1781, George Washington used spies to learn of the British troops' war plans and to fool them about his own. Washington's spies helped convince the British that his troops were headed to New York City. In fact, they were marching on Yorktown, Virginia, for the battle that would win the war.

Washington's spies were a small group of individual soldiers. Today, the U.S. has thousands of agents. Most work for the CIA, NSA, or FBI, each of which has a different mission:

CIA (Central Intelligence Agency)
  • Mission: Track terrorists and enemies of the U.S. around the world.
  • Methods: Meet with, or spy on, people in other countries.
  • Use high-tech gadgets to listen in on conversations and secretly take pictures.
  • Who they are: Spies, language experts, scientists.
  • Spying since: 1947.
  • Director: George Tenet.
  • Number of agents: Secret.
NSA (National Security Agency)
  • Mission: Eavesdrop on terrorists and other potential threats, and locate terrorist camps and movements.
  • Methods: Use high-tech equipment, including listening devices and satellite cameras that orbit Earth.
  • Who they are: Mathematicians, computer experts, and cryptologists, or code experts, who crack and create secret codes for passing messages.
  • Eavesdropping since: 1952.
  • Director: Michael Hayden.
  • Number of agents: Secret.
FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation)
  • Mission: Solve crimes and collect intelligence inside the U.S. (By law, the CIA cannot spy inside the U.S.)
  • Methods: Use old-fashioned police methods, plus new technology, to stop terrorists and criminals. This includes the agency's new Internet surveillance software known as "Carnivore." Carnivore can secretly tap into a suspected criminal's computer and read his or her e-mails.
  • Who they are: Investigators, scientists, lawyers.
  • Fighting crime since: 1908.
  • Director: Robert Mueller.
  • Number of agents: About 11,400.