The early days
By 1861, America’s military traditions were already well established. When America needed an armed force, it recruited one. When the United States no longer needed an armed force, they disbanded it. In the minds of our founding fathers, there was no reason to maintain a standing military force. Why? Because in the experience of American colonists, the British used its standing army to enforce tyrannical edicts from the Parliament.
By 1875, a decade after the end of the American Civil War, the United States Navy had deteriorated due to the neglect of Congress and the Navy’s senior leadership. The Navy’s ships were rusting away, its officers had grown apathetic and unprofessional, and (when compared to the other significant navies of the world — Britain, France, Russia, Japan) the US Navy appeared in last place. It took the United States government another five years to realize that the condition of the Navy demanded a national discussion. One of the young officers to lead this discussion was Lieutenant Theodorus B. M. Mason. He was one of the Navy’s early agents of change.
Born in New York in 1848, Theodorus came from a distinguished family. His father was a prominent attorney and a former colonel in the U. S. Army during the Civil War. His uncle was Rear Admiral Theodorus Baily. He adopted Mason’s surname in deference to his maternal grandfather Sidney, who had no male heirs to carry on the family name.
Mason graduated from the U. S. Naval Academy in 1868. He was known for his intellect, his linguistic ability, and his foresight. After serving with the Navy’s hydrographic office, he traveled extensively in Europe and South America as a naval observer charged with collecting information about foreign navies. Mason knew what information was available and how to obtain it. He recognized that for the U. S. Navy to compete with foreign navies, the United States would have to develop capacities in naval science and technology. Mason became convinced that the U. S. Navy would require a unified intelligence agency to gather, analyze, catalog, and disseminate foreign naval developments to achieve modernization.
From the report, Mason wrote of his travels and discoveries, William H. Hunt, the Secretary of the Navy, on 23 March 1882, directed the establishment of the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) with the Bureau of Navigation. Hunt appointed Mason as its first director. Mason assumed his new post, Chief Intelligence Officer, in June 1882. The Navy assigned him to a small office in what was once known as the State, War, and Navy Building, which is now the Old Executive Office Building.
Initially, the heads of the various sections of the Bureau of Navigation paid Mason little mind. He was a comparatively junior officer, a lieutenant, and the ONI was a fledgling undertaking. However, Mason began providing information that the various bureaus could use to justify the funds needed to expand and modernize the Navy.
His primary work, however, may not seem like much of an accomplishment today. Titled Information from Abroad: The War on the Pacific Coast of South America Between Chile and the Allied Republics of Peru and Bolivia, 1879-81, Mason’s work in 1883 was little more than a chronology of events incorporating his and the observations of other naval officers on a singular event. After 77 pages, Mason concluded, “Since the fall of Lima, there has been no battle of importance; many skirmishes have taken place between portions of the army of occupation and small bodies of Peruvians. There has also been a large amount of diplomatic maneuvering, which, although belonging to history, conveys no lesson of value to the naval or military student.”
The Navy transferred Lieutenant Mason to other duties three years later, replacing him with Lieutenant Raymond P. Rodgers in April 1885. In January 1894, the Navy promoted Mason to lieutenant commander and retired him due to ill-health in December.
The War Years
It wasn’t until 1916 when Congress authorized the first significant expansion of ONI, an increase in funding to support domestic security operations in advance of World War I. Two years into the war, Congress was finally convinced that someone should be looking after America’s ports, harbors, and defense plants. Germany, by then, had embarked on a significant spying operation in the United States, and subversion and sabotage had become a valid concern. ONI worked closely with the Departments of State, War, Justice, Commerce, and Labor to help prevent unauthorized disclosure of sensitive defense information. The number of ONI agents employed to accomplish such a feat was undoubtedly substantial.
ONI agents continued their counter-intelligence investigations throughout World War II — a mission assigned to its Special Activities Branch. ONI also expanded its efforts to discover critical intelligence on German submarine operations, tactics, and technologies. Most of this information came from interrogations of captured German submariners. Within this period, ONI produced thousands of ship and aircraft recognition manuals for front-line forces. Also initiated during this period was a sophisticated photo-interpretation effort and a related topographical model section that aided in the planning for combat operations by amphibious planners of the Navy, Army, and Marine Corps. ONI also established two schools for the training of fleet intelligence officers.
In 1945, the Navy began hiring civilian scientists and technologists to guide advancements in a wide range of fields. The Sound Surveillance System, acoustic intelligence, the Navy Scientific and Technical Intelligence Center, and the Navy Reconnaissance and Technical Support Center came from this effort.
In 1946, ONI established the Office of Operational Intelligence. This particular office inherited the mission of the Navy’s Combat Intelligence Division, created by Fleet Admiral Ernest J. King during World War II. Its “Special Section,” known as Y1, evolved from the Joint Intelligence Center, Pacific Ocean area (JICPOA) that successfully operated against the Imperial Japanese Navy in the Pacific War.
After World War II (faced with ongoing budget cuts), the ONI returned to its somewhat abbreviated peacetime mission. This changed with the beginning of the Korean War in 1950. ONI began a significant buildup of special agents whose principal mission was the security of Naval facilities and personnel and criminal investigations involving Navy and Marine Corps personnel.
In 1957, ONI incorporated a signals intelligence effort under the Navy’s Field Operational Intelligence section. This group provided real-time information about the disposition of foreign naval and military forces during the Cold War.
In 1966, a special investigative unit was formed and named the Naval Investigative Service (NIS). NIS became the primary investigative agency of the Department of the Navy for counter-intelligence and criminal activities. In 1982, NIS assumed responsibility for the Navy’s Law Enforcement and Physical Security mission. Following the Beirut bombing in 1983, NIS established the Navy Anti-terrorist Alert Center. One notable employee of ATAC was a civilian analyst named Jonathan Pollard, convicted of spying for Israel in 1987. Pollard was released from prison in 2015 and now lives in Israel.
Following the so-called “Tailhook Scandal” in 1991 (with pressure from the Chairman of the US Senate Armed Services Committee (Senator Sam Nunn)), the Naval Investigative Service was re-named Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS). It concurrently became a federal law enforcement agency under civilian leadership within the Department of the Navy.
Between 1988-93, ONI joined the U. S. Coast Guard Intelligence Coordination Center and the Marine Corps Intelligence Activity supporting domestic maritime and expeditionary and littoral intelligence collection missions. This newest facility is called the National Maritime Intelligence Center. In 2009, the Chief of Naval Operations directed the transformation of ONI into a major naval command which included four subordinate components: scientific and technical intelligence, operational intelligence, information services technology, and expeditionary/special warfare intelligence support.
The Navy’s intelligence mission is evolving, providing critical support to national and global governments and industrial partners. In 2016, the “Information Warfare Community,” which operates under the supervision of the Assistant Chief of Naval Operations, became the Navy’s primary conduit for global information systems. Its primary function is command and control systems, battlespace and adversary management, and power projection. It is an effort that employs around 52,000 military, civilian, and civilian contract employees in warfare, cryptographic, meteorological, and oceanographic disciplines. Today, there are five separate organizations within the Office of Naval Intelligence: The Nimitz Operation Intelligence Center, Farragut Technical Analysis Center, Kennedy Irregular Warfare Center, Hopper Information Services Center, and the Brooks Center for Maritime Engagement.
The Office of Naval Intelligence is not without its critics, however. Those who suspect the existence of a “deep state” within the U. S. government point to former ONI officer Robert Woodward and his journalistic sidekick Carl Bernstein as willing participants of a deep-state plot organized to bring down President Richard Nixon in the so-called Watergate Affair. If true, it may have been the first time that manufactured materials targeted high-ranking US officials. Such accusations are easier made than proved, which goes to the secrecy of official intelligence operations and ONI’s long involvement in domestic spying operations.
Giving some credence to the concerns of “deep state” theorists, in the aftermath of President Biden’s disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Director of Naval Intelligence recently warned active duty and retired military personnel that any criticism made by them toward the President of the United States, Vice President, cabinet officials, and members of congress may subject them to court-martial proceedings for violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), and a warning to civilian employees that they may be censored pursuant to Department of Defense Instruction 1344.10. It is enough to cause one to wonder how far the role of ONI now extends into matters of America’s Constitutional guarantee of expressing personal opinions.
I have no answers.
- O’Brien, P. P. British, and American Naval Power: Politics and Policy, 1900-1936. Greenwood, 1998.
- “Our Heritage,” The Office of Naval Intelligence online.
 After the revolutionary war, Congress disbanded America’s land and naval forces. At the end of World War I, the United States demobilized the US armed forces. President Truman ordered the demobilization of the armed forces in 1946. Truman saw the error of his ways in late June 1950 when the United States came within a hair’s width of being physically thrown off the Korean Peninsula.
 Hydrographic is the study and process of measuring the physical characteristics of waters and marginal land
 Secretary Hunt served only briefly as Secretary of the Navy, under President James Garfield. His one enduring achievement, beyond creating the ONI, was a Naval Advisory Board, which he tasked with reviewing and evaluating suggestions for rebuilding the U. S. Navy. It wasn’t until 1915 that Secretary Josephus Daniels established a permanent advisory board — a suggestion by famed inventor Thomas A. Edison.