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U.S. Department of State - Great Seal

U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

DS History: Quiet Beginnings


Security within the U.S. Department of State was formally established in 1916 under Secretary of State Robert Lansing. The office was headed by a Chief Special Agent, who also carried the title of Special Assistant to the Secretary and reported directly to the Secretary on special matters.

A handful of agents worked out of two locations, Washington, DC, and New York City, operating on confidential funds from the Secretary's office. They conducted sensitive investigations, especially on the operations of foreign agents and their activities in the United States.

In 1918, Congress passed legislation requiring passports for Americans traveling abroad and visas for aliens wishing to enter the United States. Shortly thereafter, the Chief Special Agent's office began investigating passport and visa fraud. Special agents also protected distinguished visitors to the United States.

During World War I, the Chief Special Agent's office was given the responsibility for interning and exchanging diplomatic officials of enemy powers and assisting in screening people repatriated from enemy-controlled areas.

The '20s
The Chief Special Agent began reporting his normal activities to the Assistant Secretary for Administration. However, he still retained his title of Special Assistant to the Secretary and reported directly to the Secretary on sensitive matters.

With the help of U.S. Postal Inspectors, security at State expanded and increased the depth of personnel investigations. The Chief Special Agent's office was used not only for security work within the State Department but also in several aspects of immigration control and in the control of crime on the high seas.

The '30s
As the 1930s progressed, it became clear that there were major passport fraud activities worldwide involving both Communists and Nazis. The Chief Special Agent's office, working as the investigative and identification arm of the Passport Office, successfully exposed several of these subversive operations.

In many of these cases, the passport aspect was incidental to a much larger problem - Soviet and German espionage networks. Investigation of passport fraud in New York City led to the discovery of a Soviet intelligence network that, in turn, revealed a number of Soviet agents and American Communist Party members engaged in espionage activities. Although a back-door approach, these investigations succeeded in exposing for the first time the existence of such Soviet operations.

[Continue on to Mid-Century]


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