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31 January 2008

Antecedent to the Chief Intelligence Officer

Given the apparent interest in the historical examples of the roles played by the most senior intelligence professionals now carrying the title of Chief Intelligence Officer, we thought it appropriate to mention one of the designations which preceded the more common “modern” appellation.

Sir Francis Drake’s English fleet, constituted to resist the Spanish Armada in 1588, did not lack for its own intelligence. The fleet sailed with an intelligence department under an individual who carried the title “Master of the Discoveries”, which an 1898 reference (repeated by another source in 1902) likened to modern post of the Chief Intelligence Officer. This individual was given command as “Lieutenant-Colonel of the pinnaces”, these being a sort of light boat used for communications and scouting duties – a quite logical platform from which to build out an intelligence capability.

The title itself may have originated from the time of Prince Henry the Navigator, of Portugal, and passed into naval tradition by way of his school founded at Sagres in 1419. However, this is uncertain due to contemporary dispute as to the true nature of that gathering of cartographers and sailing masters. There is also some reference to the title in such use which may support this hypothesis, found a 1938 volume, but this may well be built upon the foundation of later local legends rather than true history.

The concepts underlying the idea of discovery were at the time a critical national security concern – offering grand strategic advantage to any government which could maintain such secret knowledge. The major fleets of the day were in fact nearly the entirety of a country’s military force projection, and thus the senior commanders the de facto heads of the defense establishment. The intelligence leadership of the day may have thus stood as one of the more influential figures in all of the profession’s history. One can also easily see how the post migrated from the fleet, to the Company, to the Admiralty (and in the US, the Office of Naval Intelligence - at least until 1911), and thence to the national intelligence establishment and its privatized counterparts.

While we do not think we shall see the more archaic form of address come back into fashion any time soon, it does extend the timeline for the formalized role back quite a bit. Throughout history, the position may have existed in informal practice for generations, but the dawn of the profession itself can be traced to the recognition of these functions in a manner distinct from other specialties.

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