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espionage (ĕsˈpēənäzhˌ), the act of obtaining information clandestinely. The term applies particularly to the act of collecting military, industrial, and political data about one nation for the benefit of another. Industrial espionage—the theft of patents and processes from business firms—is not properly espionage at all.

Modern Espionage

Espionage is a part of intelligence activity, which is also concerned with analysis of diplomatic reports, newspapers, periodicals, technical publications, commercial statistics, and radio and television broadcasts. In the last fifty years espionage activity has been greatly supplemented by technological advances, especially in the areas of radio signal interception and high-altitude photography. Surveillance with high-technology equipment on the ground or from high-altitude planes and satellites has become an important espionage technique (see Cuban Missile Crisis). The development of the Internet has created opportunities for espionage through hacking into foreign government and private computers, through electronic surveillance of Internet and network traffic, and through the use of trojan horses, key loggers, and such computer programs. Code making and code breaking (see cryptography) have become computerized and very effective. The threat of foreign espionage is used as an excuse for internal suppression and the suspension of civil rights in many countries. Espionage is a very important part of guerrilla warfare and counterinsurgency. The defensive side of intelligence activity, i.e., preventing another nation from gaining such information, is known as counterespionage. Under international law, intelligence activities are not illegal; however, every nation has laws against espionage conducted against it.


Beginnings through the Nineteenth Century

The importance of espionage in military affairs has been recognized since the beginning of recorded history. The Egyptians had a well-developed secret service, and spying and subversion are mentioned in the Iliad and in the Bible. The ancient Chinese treatise (c.500 B.C.) on the art of war (see Sun Tzu) devotes much attention to deception and intelligence gathering, arguing that all war is based on deception. In the Middle Ages, political espionage became important. Joan of Arc was betrayed by Bishop Pierre Cauchon of Beauvais, a spy in the pay of the English, and Sir Francis Walsingham developed an efficient political spy system for Elizabeth I. With the growth of the modern national state, systematized espionage became a fundamental part of government in most countries. Joseph Fouché is credited with developing the first modern political espionage system, and Frederick II of Prussia is regarded as the founder of modern military espionage. During the American Revolution, Nathan Hale and Benedict Arnold achieved fame as spies, and there was considerable use of spies on both sides during the U.S. Civil War.

In the Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries

By World War I, all the great powers except the United States had elaborate civilian espionage systems and all national military establishments had intelligence units. To protect the country against foreign agents, the U.S. Congress passed the Espionage Statute of 1917. Mata Hari, who obtained information for Germany by seducing French officials, was the most noted espionage agent of World War I. Germany and Japan established elaborate espionage nets in the years preceding World War II. In 1942 the Office of Strategic Services was founded by Gen. William J. Donovan. However, the British system was the keystone of Allied intelligence.

Since World War II, espionage activity has enlarged considerably, much of it growing out of the cold war between the United States and the former USSR. Russia and the Soviet Union have had a long tradition of espionage ranging from the Czar's Okhrana to the Committee for State Security (the KGB), which also acted as a secret police force. In the United States the 1947 National Security Act created the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to coordinate intelligence and the National Security Agency for research into codes and electronic communication. In addition to these, the United States has 13 other intelligence gathering agencies; most of the U.S. expenditures for intelligence gathering are budgeted to various Defense Dept. agencies and their programs. Under the intelligence reorganization of 2004, the director of national intelligence is responsible for overseeing and coordinating the activities and budgets of the U.S. intelligence agencies.

Famous cold war espionage cases include Alger Hiss and Whittaker Chambers and the Rosenberg Case. In 1952 the Communist Chinese captured two CIA agents, and in 1960 Francis Gary Powers, flying a U-2 reconnaissance mission over the Soviet Union for the CIA, was shot down and captured. During the cold war, many Soviet intelligence officials defected to the West, including Gen. Walter Krivitsky, Victor Kravchenko, Vladimir Petrov, Peter Deriabin Pawel Monat, and Oleg Penkovsky, of the GRU (Soviet military intelligence). Among Western officials who defected to the Soviet Union are Guy F. Burgess and Donald D. Maclean of Great Britain in 1951, Otto John of West Germany in 1954, William H. Martin and Bernon F. Mitchell, U.S. cryptographers, in 1960, and Harold (Kim) Philby of Great Britain in 1962. U.S. acknowledgment of its U-2 flights and the exchange of Francis Gary Powers for Rudolf Abel in 1962 implied the legitimacy of some espionage as an arm of foreign policy.

China has a very cost-effective intelligence program that is especially effective in monitoring neighboring countries. Smaller countries can also mount effective and focused espionage efforts. The Vietnamese Communists, for example, had consistently superior intelligence during the Vietnam War. Israel probably has the best espionage establishment in the world. Some of the Muslim countries, especially Libya, Iran, and Syria, have highly developed operations as well. Iran's Savak was particularly feared by Iranian dissidents before the Iranian Revolution.


See A. Ind, A Short History of Espionage (1963); R. W. Rowan and R. G. Deindorfer, Secret Service: Thirty-Three Centuries of Espionage (rev. ed. 1967); R. Friedman, Advanced Technology Warfare (1985); G. Treverton, Covert Action (1989); J. Keegan, Intelligence in War (2003); M. J. Sulick, Spying in America (2012); J. Haslam, Near and Distant Neighbors (2015).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



a crime involving the secret gathering or stealing of information (including economic information) that constitutes state secrets with the intent of turning the information over to another state to the detriment of the state from which the information was taken. Espionage is treated as a crime by the legal systems of all countries. It is one type of subversive activity used by imperialist intelligence services against the USSR and other countries of the socialist camp.

Under Soviet criminal law, espionage is defined as an especially dangerous state crime involving the transmission, or the stealing or gathering with the intent to transmit, of military or state secrets to a foreign state or organization or to agents thereof. It may also include the transmission of other information to be used against the interests of the USSR or the collection of such information on commission from a foreign intelligence agency.

Espionage is considered to have been committed from the moment that the information is obtained, regardless of whether or not it has been transmitted. An unsuccessful attempt to obtain espionage information—for example, an attempt to buy a state secret from a person who legally possesses it—constitutes attempted espionage. If classified state or military information has been obtained and transmitted, the actions of the guilty person are defined as espionage, whether he acted on his own initiative or on commission from a foreign state or organization or from agents thereof. Obtaining and transmitting other information is defined as espionage if these actions are performed on commission from foreign intelligence bodies and if the information is obtained or transmitted for use against the interests of the USSR.

Espionage committed by a citizen of the USSR is treason against the homeland. It carries a sentence of ten to 15 years’ deprivation of freedom with confiscation of property, with or without additional exile for a term of two to five years, or execution with confiscation of property (art. 64 of the Criminal Code of the RSFSR and the corresponding articles of the criminal codes of the other Union republics). Espionage committed by a foreigner or person without citizenship is punishable by deprivation of freedom for seven to 15 years with confiscation of property, with or without additional exile for a term of two to five years, or by execution with confiscation of property (art. 65 of the Criminal Code of the RSFSR and the corresponding articles of the criminal codes of the other Union republics).

Espionage is used extensively by the bourgeois states. The USA, for example, has a special intelligence agency known as the Central Intelligence Agency. Intelligence divisions within other departments and ministries also perform espionage and intelligence-gathering activities. At the same time, every capitalist state maintains extremely harsh punishments for espionage committed against it. In accordance with the criminal code of France, espionage is punished by execution. The penalty under British law is execution or hard labor.

Liability for military espionage—that is, secretly and under false pretenses collecting information about the enemy in a zone of military action for the purpose of transmitting the information to one’s own command—is regulated by international law under the Statute on the Laws and Customs of Land Warfare, which is appended to the Hague Convention of 1907. A state that has arrested a spy has the right to punish him according to the state’s discretion, after a legal trial.

The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.