The lobby of the CIA Headquarters Building in McLean, Virginia

Evolution of Espionage – Intelligence Agencies Across the World

Any keen watcher of the geopolitical scenario well understands the fact that wars are won more often inside closed chambers than in the open battlefield. The sharing of intelligence behind these dubious chambers has played a decisive role in ensuring historic victories. Remember watching Benedict Cumberbatch starrer “The Imitation Game” ? How a mathematical genius used his skills to crack the enigma code and changed the entire course of the second World War ? If you haven’t, go watch it now. The great art of warfare banks a great deal on Espionage, the second oldest profession in the world. We outsiders have seen this glorious world of spies in its full glory through shows like Homeland, The Americans, The Spy, Killing Eve etc. And I am sure these clandestine and covert affairs have caused the most intrigue amongst many. Afterall, who wouldn’t buy the brand that James Bond globally endorses ?

Starting from ancient times, the network of spies has always played an important role in establishing/destabilizing order across the world. Espionage is one of the most well documented military and political arts. In the post-modern world, this network has manifested itself under different sophisticated organizations like the CIA, Mossad, RAW, GRU, BND, MI6 etc. In this write up, I would talk about the evolution of espionage since ancient times and its various manifestations in today’s polarized world.

Espionage in the Ancient World

Throughout history, intelligence has been defined as the collection, culling, analysis, and dissemination of critical and strategic information. Historical and literary accounts of spies and acts of espionage appear in some of world’s earliest recorded histories, through hieroglyphs, papyri and other such artefacts.

Ancient Times

Beginning of Intelligence

The first documented intelligence organization, according to Tanakh – the Hebrew Bible, was created by the Israelite tribes led by Moses, around 1300 BC. After the Exodus from Egypt and the years in the wilderness, the Israelites crossed the Jordan River into the land of Canaan. According to Christopher Andrew, author of The Secret World, God told Moses to “send spies to reconnoiter the land of Canaan, which I give unto the children of Israel”. Since no trained intelligence personnel were available for the mission to the Promised Land, Moses selected, on God’s instructions, one leading man from each of the twelve tribes of Israel. The Quran contains a similar account of the spies’ mission.

The biblical account of this mission provides the first record of a joint operation involving both of, reputedly, the world’s two oldest professions (prostitution and spy craft). Honey trapping, one of the most potent tactics in the espionage trade, thus finds a mention in documents as old as time. Rahab, who worked at the brothel, is known to be the first ever female spy who played a supporting role in the Israelites’ conquest of Jericho.

The influence of the abovementioned mission can be seen in the modern day intelligence agencies of Mossad and Shin Bet. Both the agencies draw their mottos from the Hebrew Bible. “Shin Bet’s comes from Psalm 121: He who watches over Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep. The current Mossad motto is: Where no counsel is, the people fall, but in the multitude of counsellors there is safety (Proverbs 11:14). This replaced an earlier, more contentious motto based on Proverbs 24:6: ‘By way of deception, thou shalt conduct war.’

“That motto is still sometimes cited by the current Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. When celebrating the Hanukkah festival with President Shimon Peres and Mossad’s chief, Tamir Pardo, in December 2012, Netanyahu declared:

On Hanukkah we traditionally say, ‘Who will sing the praises of Israel’s strength?’, and I add to that ‘Who will carry out Israel’s covert operations?’, as it is written: ‘By way of deception, thou shalt conduct war.’ This is the way the few defeat the many, and we have learned that from the days of our forefathers. We need a body that can operate on the international level using both ancient and modern methods. The Mossad does just that in the most outstanding way.”

Apart from Israelis, the ancient Egyptians were also deeply involved in intelligence gathering operations. Canaan’s city states were administered by the vassals of the Pharaoh’s with a strong Egyptian military and administrative presence. It was also a vital source of supplies for Egypt’s army and navy. Canaan also formed a bridge between Egypt and the four other ‘Great Kingdoms’ in the ancient Near East with which it had diplomatic relations: Hatti, Mitanni, Assyria and Babylonia. Therefore Canaan was a priority for Egyptian intelligence collection. The earliest evidence of Egyptian espionage comes from “Amarna letters”, written on clay tablets in the mid-fourteenth century BC. A total of 329 of the Amarna letters were sent by vassals in Canaan to the Pharaoh about a century earlier than the Israelite conquest of Canaan. Most of this information could be considered high priority intel and not open source.

From 1,000 BC onwards, Egyptian espionage operations focused on foreign intelligence about the political and military strength of rivals Greece and Rome. Egyptian spies made substantial contributions to espionage tradecraft. As the ancient civilizations of Egypt, Greece, and Rome employed literate subjects in their civil services, many spies dealt with written communications.

The use of written messages compelled the development of codes, disguised writing, hoax inks, and hidden sections in clothing etc. Egyptian spies were the first to develop the extensive use of poisons, including toxins derived from plants and snakes, to carry-out assassinations or acts of sabotage.

Even Jesus’s Passover Meal, now known as The Last Supper saw an infiltration of a secret agent named Judas Iscariot among his Twelve Disciples. He was a secret agent recruited by the Chief Priests. As they ate, Jesus said to the disciples: ‘Verily I say unto you, One of you which eateth with me shall betray me.’

Ancient Greece

The ancient Greek seers relied on divinity for guidance by interpreting the entrails (especially livers) of sacrificed animals (extispicy), the behavior of birds (augury), dreams and a great variety of portents. The most direct access to divine guidance was believed to come from oracles – in particular, the oracle at Delphi, the leading sacred site in the ancient world. Around 8th century BC, a virgin high priestess Pythia, the Delphi Oracle, apparently became possessed by Apollo himself for nine days every year. She used to sit on the tripod and uttered incomprehensible messages from Apollo, the god of Sun, Light and Prophecy. These messages were ‘translated’ by an older priest into hexameter verse. Among those who approached the oracle seeking intelligence, information, wisdom and guidance were Aeschylus, Aristotle, Clement of Alexandria, Diodorus, Diogenes, Euripides, Herodotus, Julian, Justin, Livy, Lucan, Nepos, Ovid, Pausanias, Pindar, Plato, Plutarch, Sophocles, Strabo, Thucydides and Xenophon.

Rise of Greek civilization brought with it new military and intelligence strategies around 1500-1200 BC. These skills were required to subvert the rival as Greece was fighting wars on all fronts. The early Greeks relied on deception as a primary means of achieving surprise attacks on their enemies. The legendary incident of the Trojan Horse, a wooden structure given to the city of Troy as gift, which contained several hundred Greek soldiers seeking safe entrance into the heavily fortified rival city, became the symbol of Grecian intelligence prowess. In democratic Greek city states, espionage was employed as a political tool.

The most farsighted contribution of the ancient Greek intelligence community was its creation of a complex and efficient means of communication between cities. Couriers delivered messages between cities, but important messages were also relayed between a series of outposts or towers using semaphore, a form of communication that utilized signals to convey messages.


No civilization in the ancient world relied more heavily on intelligence information than Rome. They significantly furthered the development of espionage. Over a millennium, the Romans created the largest empire of the ancient world, necessitating the governance of the most expansive infrastructure, military, and bureaucracy of the time.

Rome’s most famous case of espionage and intrigue culminated in the assassination of Julius Caesar on March 15, 44 BC. The exact details of the conspiracy of assassination remain a mystery to historians, but records have established that the Roman intelligence community knew of the plot and even provided information to Caesar or his assistants providing the names of several conspirators. However the information from the intelligence community was ignored.

The Roman Empire also possessed a keenness for the practice of political espionage. Spies engaged in both foreign and domestic political operations, gauging the political climate of the Empire and surrounding lands by eavesdropping in the Forum or in public market spaces. Several ancient accounts, especially those of the first century AD, mention the presence of a secret police force, the frumentarii. Political espionage was not limited to the more contentious parts of the Roman periphery, but was also practiced in Rome itself by rival factions of the government. Some ministries even employed saboteurs. Concern about government rivalries necessitated the creation of the agentes in rebus, the first exclusive counterintelligence force.


In China, Sun Tzu penned the comprehensive military treatise, The Art of War, which contained several chapters devoted to the use of spies both on and off the battlefield. Sun Tzu is considered one of the greatest military thinkers of all times.

The central argument of The Art of War is summed up in its first and final sentences:

War is a matter of vital importance to the state; the province of life or death; the road to survival or ruin.’

‘Secret operations are essential in war; upon them the army relies to make its every move.’

 Intelligence in The Art of War was closely linked to deception: ‘All warfare is based on deception. There- fore, when capable, feign incapacity. When active, inactivity.’ Though there had been individual cases, as at the Battle of Salamis in 480 BC, of the use of secret agents to feed disinformation to the enemy, The Art of War was the first to recommend their systematic use in time of war.


Varuna,  one  of  the  chief  gods  of  the  Vedic  pantheon  is  considered  to  be  a  forerunner  of  Secret  Services.  Magha,  one  of  the most   erudite   and   lucid   poets   and   pragmatic thinkers,   unequivocally   asserted   that   statecraft   cannot   exist   without   the assistance  of espionage. In ancient India, espionage was conceived not as an instrument of oppression but as a tool of governance. Secret agents were considered as ‘eyes of the king.’ Indian  history  illustrates  Indian  expertise  in  this  secret  art.  The  techniques  and  operational methods adopted  by  them  were  highly  advanced.  From  the  spasas  of Varuna,  the  fore- runners  of  the modern  day  spies to  Chanakya’s  final manifestation   of   this   art   in   the  Arthashastra, the techniques of spy craft are timeless and unique. No  wonder that 2500  years  old  skills  in  deceit,  guile,  hypocrisy and machination taught  by  that  Master  strategist,  Chanakya  alias  Kautilya, was  adopted  by India’s premier intelligence  agency,  the  Research  and  Analysis  Wing  (RAW).

Medieval Times

  • After the collapse of the Roman Empire in Europe, espionage and intelligence activities were confined to wartime or local service.
  • The birth of large nation-states, like France and England, in the 9th-10th centuries facilitated the need for intelligence in a diplomatic setting. Systems of messengers, decoders, and royal couriers carried diplomatic messages between monarchs and feudal lords.
  • Espionage remained mostly limited to battlefield operations. Due to the evolution of complex system of relationship between Monarchs and Feudal lords, the complex web of allegiances gave rise to laws forbidding treachery, dual fidelities, and political espionage against allied lords.
  • 11th century onwards, the two landmark events, the crusades and inquisition, congealed the authority of the Church and created the only long-standing, medieval intelligence community.
  • In 1095, Pope Urban II called for the first Crusade, a military campaign to recapture Jerusalem and the Holy Lands from Muslim and Byzantine rule. The Church employed spies to report on defenses surrounding Constantinople and Jerusalem. Special intelligence agents also permeated prisons to free captured crusaders and incapacitate rival palaces and military defenses.
  • By the early fourteenth century, Rome and the Spanish monarchs both employed sizable secret police forces to carry out mass trials and public executions.
  • In 1542, Pope Paul III established the Congregation of the Holy Office, a permanent council whose mission was to maintain the political integrity of Church. The council maintained spies and informers, but shifted their focus to scrutinizing the actions of Europe’s monarchs and prominent aristocrats.

Modern Times

  • The 18th century saw a dramatic expansion of espionage activities due to ongoing wars. With the expansion of armies and ministries, room for intelligence departments grew as well. Industrialization, economic and territorial expansion, the diversification of political philosophies and regimes as well as immigration were major factors that led to transformation of the world’s intelligence communities.
  • During the French Revolution, in the 1790s, all factions relied heavily on espionage. Robespierre’s dictatorship saw the worst abuse of intelligence powers in the modern era.
  • During the American Revolution, 1775–1783, American General George Washington developed a successful espionage system to detect British locations and plans. The British intelligence system was weak; it completely missed the movement of the entire American and French armies from the Northeast to Yorktown, Virginia, where they captured the British invasion army in 1781 and won independence. George Washington has been called “Americas First Spymaster.”
  • Modern tactics of espionage and dedicated government intelligence agencies were developed in 19th A key background to this development was the Great Game, a period denoting the strategic rivalry and conflict that existed between the British Empire and the Russian Empire throughout Central Asia. This eerie conflict was popularized in Rudyard Kipling’s famous spy book, Kim, where he portrayed the Great Game as an espionage and intelligence conflict that “never ceases, day or night.”
  • By the dawn of the 20th century, espionage had evolved into a highly specialized, technical field. Far from the arena and dogmatic intrigue of the ancient world, modern espionage involves more research and analysis than field operations. Specialized military units are still used for strategic intelligence, but most nations have developed large, centralized, civilian intelligence communities that conduct operations in wartime and peacetime with increasing technological sophistication.

Modern Day Intelligence Agencies

Here’s a list of some of the best Modern Day intelligence agencies in the world.

  • Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) – India’s premier intelligence agency was found in 1968 by the legendary RN Kao. The agency came into being after the Sino-Indian war of 1962 and the India-Pakistan war of 1965, which exposed gaps in intelligence gathering undertaken by the Intelligence Bureau.
  • Mossad  – It is Israel’s intelligence agency and is headquartered in Tel Aviv. Founded in 1949, it has been a part of some of the most daring undercover operations in the world.
  • Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) – It was founded in 1947 and is headquartered in Fairfax, USA. This agency plays a vital role in maintaining the USA’s position as a superpower and mediate foreign policy intelligence and analysis countrywide. For ensuring USA’s domination across the world, it once owned a dummy corporation named “Air America,” which functioned as a civilian airline but was actually used to conduct military operations in the East.
  • Military Intelligence, Section 6 (MI6) – It was founded in 1909 and is one of the oldest intelligence agencies of the modern world. MI6 has existed in various forms since  the establishment of a secret service in 1569 by Sir Francis Walsingham, who became secretary of state to Queen Elizabeth I. In its present form, it was constituted by  Commander  Mansfield Cumming to coordinate intelligence activities prior to the outbreak of the first world war.
  • The Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND) – It has its headquarters in Germany and was founded in 1956. The BND collects and evaluates information on a variety of areas such as international terrorism, WMD proliferation and illegal transfer of technology, etc.
  • Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (FSB) – It is headquartered in Lubyanka Square, Russia and was founded in 1995. FSD is the main domestic security agency of the Russian Federation and is responsible for internal security of the Russian state, counterespionage, and fight again other forms of organized crimes.


  1. Boardman, John, Jasper Griffen, and Oswyn Murray. Oxford History of the Classical World.New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.
  2. Holmes, George. Oxford History of Medieval Europe.New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.
  3. Richelson, Jeffrey T., A Century of Spies: Intelligence in the Twentieth Century (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1995)
  4. ANDREW, C. (2018). Secret World: A History of Intelligence. New Haven; London: Yale University Press.

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