Home News Stories 2005 June A Commemorative WWII Series, Part 2
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A Commemorative WWII Series, Part 2

A Commemorative WWII History Series
Part 2: The FBI’s Special Intelligence Service, 1940-1946


Special agent using a radio

Who was the “golfer” who easily won a local championship overseas and went on to become personal friends with the country’s political leaders?

Who was the “traveling companion” of a South American police official—an official who boasted that he “could spot any FBI undercover man on sight”?

Who was the “visitor” to a foreign country who drew up legislation that improved that nation’s ability to protect itself against Axis intelligence activities?

They were all FBI agents...working undercover in Central and South America during World War II as part of our “Special Intelligence Service,” or SIS, established 65 years ago this week by order of President Roosevelt.

Why was the SIS launched? Because by 1940 South America had become a hotbed of German intrigue. More than half-a-million German emigrants—many supporters of the Third Reich—had settled in Brazil and Argentina alone. In line with our earlier intelligence work on threats posed by Germany, Roosevelt wanted to keep an eye on Nazi activities in our neighbors to the south. And when the U.S. joined the Allied cause in 1941, he wanted to protect our nation from Hitler’s spies and collect intelligence on Axis activities to help win the war.

The President turned to the FBI to run the SIS (remember, this was before the CIA was created), and we ended up sending more than 340 agents and support professionals undercover into Central and South America over the next seven years.

As you’d expect, there was a learning curve...and it took some time to master the languages and get undercover operatives in place. But within months, the SIS was working well. We were gathering information and sending it back to FBI headquarters in Washington, where it was crafted into useful intelligence for the military and others. And overseas, we developed ways of sharing crucial information with law enforcement and intelligence services there so they could round up Axis spies and saboteurs.

How successful was the SIS? The numbers speak for themselves. By 1946, we had identified 887 Axis spies, 281 propaganda agents, 222 agents smuggling strategic war materials, 30 saboteurs, and 97 other agents. We had located 24 secret Axis radio stations and confiscated 40 radio transmitters and 18 receiving sets. And we had even used some of these radio networks to pass false and misleading information back to Nazi Germany.

The SIS was disbanded after the war, and the newly formed CIA was asked to take over its operations and expand U.S. intelligence activities worldwide. But the SIS served the nation well: it helped protect the homeland and win the war...provided valuable lessons in intelligence and undercover operations for the Bureau for years to come...and set the stage for our overseas Legal Attaché program.

Links: FBI Records on the SIS | Part 1 of the WWII Summer Series | FBI History during WWII | More Byte Out of History stories