July 1, 1965
Lori S. Tagg
USAICoE Command Historian
By Department of Defense Directive, on July 1, 1965, the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) established a single Defense Attaché System (DAS), thereby consolidating the attaché systems managed by the individual military departments. On that date, the US Army, Air Force, and Navy placed all their attachés on temporary duty with the DIA and relinquished their responsibilities for the mission.
Officially, the US Army attaché program began in 1889, but as early as 1815, it had detailed individuals to foreign countries as observers. Capt. Sylvanus Thayer went to France to attend the military academy there and collect information on science and mathematics, while Maj. William McRee traveled to Belgium and France to survey those countries’ fortifications. Several other Army officers followed in the subsequent decades. In 1880, General William Tecumseh Sherman, Commanding General of the Army, who himself had undertaken an unofficial tour of Europe in the early 1870s, ordered all officers traveling abroad to obtain “information of value to the military service of the United States” and report their observations to the Adjutant General. This was not only the precursor to the official military attaché program formed nine years later, but also one of the catalysts for the formation of a Military Information Division (MID) in the Adjutant General’s office in 1885. The MID’s primary mission existence was to “obtain and collate such military data as may be deemed useful and beneficial to the Army at large.”
The US Navy had established a naval attaché system in 1882. Seven years later, the US Army followed suit, when Congress authorized expenditures for officers detailed abroad for the “collection and classification of military information.” Under the oversight of the MID of the Adjutant General’s Office, the attaché system was the foundation of national peacetime foreign intelligence throughout the late 19th and early 20th century. The first official attachés were posted at the American legations in London, Paris, and Vienna, with St. Petersburg and Berlin added later that year. By 1898, the Army had attachés stationed in 16 countries, including Italy, Spain, Belgium, Japan, Mexico, and several other Latin American nations.
The Army’s attaché in Mexico, Capt. (later Brig. Gen.) George Scriven, proved exceedingly valuable on the eve of the Spanish-American War in Cuba. His report detailed the Cuban road and railway systems (with maps), military strength and location of defensive works, and attitudes of local inhabitants. Scriven’s report formed in large part MID’s pamphlet “Military Notes on Cuba” issued in June 1898. Meanwhile, Capt. (later Gen.) Tasker Bliss, attaché in Madrid, forwarded reports on Spain’s decision to send troop reinforcements and munitions to the Caribbean island. MID, accordingly, compiled highly accurate strength estimates of the Spanish Army throughout Cuba.
During the early part of the 20th century, the number of military attachés increased until, by 1914, the Army had 23 posts, more than any other country except Russia. Twenty years later, more than 450 military, naval, and air attachés were serving abroad. Most of the military information the US Army had about the Axis powers prior to entering World War II came from peacetime collection efforts of these attachés. Although often incomplete, the information they provided specified technological developments and possible employment of the modern weapons of war, such as the airplane, tank, and antiaircraft guns.
In the two decades after World War II, the Army continued to rely heavily on attachés as the most effective method of peacetime human intelligence. Recognizing a long uncorrected deficiency, in 1946, it established the Strategic Intelligence School in Washington, DC, to train officers selected for such duty. The numbers continued to grow. In 1956, the Army had 68 attaché posts, the Navy 45 and the Air Force 53.
In 1963, a special Senate Subcommittee on National Security Staffing and Operations looked into the various attaché systems and found critical problems. Foremost were duplication of effort and poor information sharing, as well as inefficient use of resources. The Secretary of Defense, consequently, ordered a comprehensive study on the attaché structure, which resulted in the recommendation for a centralized military attaché system under the DIA. The trend toward consolidation had already begun when, in 1963, the Strategic Intelligence School and its Navy counterpart merged to become the Defense Intelligence School to train attachés from all the military services.
The Army’s attaché system remained a responsibility of the G-2 until DIA assumed the mission. After that, the military services maintained and financed the personnel, but DIA was responsible for programming and overall financing of the new Defense Attaché System and served as a single chain of command. DIA also determined the appropriate composition of attachés at each post as compatible with the intelligence collection goals. In this way, the identity of the individual service attachés was ensured, but reporting was streamlined, policies and procedures were standardized, and the management of the total attaché effort was improved.
Col. Truman Smith (left), military attaché in Berlin from 1935-1939, provided valuable intelligence on Germany’s preparation and modernization for war. Upon returning to the US, he worked in the Military Intelligence Division as a German specialist. Charles Lindbergh (right) also helped collect intelligence on the German Luftwaffe.