CIA. KGB. MSS. All acronyms that anyone familiar with the intelligence world would know. (For those who may not be familiar, they stand for: Central Intelligence Agency — United States, Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti — Soviet Union/Russia, and the Ministry for State Security — China). They are all well-represented in the modern media.

But what about the lesser-known, more obscure intelligence apparatuses out there and throughout history? Some had a definitive intel mission, while others were more of a “grey area.” But they all served the purpose of providing commanders and policymakers with a clear picture of a given situation.

This is the first of a series of articles that will introduce and discuss these units, from ancient to modern times.

Biblical Spies

The gathering of intelligence for tactical, strategic, and political purposes dates back to biblical times. According to the Old Testament (Joshua 2), in preparation for an attack on the city of Jericho: “Then Joshua son of Nun secretly sent two spies from Shittim. ‘Go, look over the land,’ he said, ‘especially Jericho.’ So they went and entered the house of a prostitute named Rahab and stayed there.”

According to the text, Rahab hid the spies from the soldiers who were searching for them, then gave them instructions for escape. They were able to gather the information needed and report back to Joshua. The attack on Jericho was ultimately a success. Typical of the day, there were no dedicated intel units. Instead, men were handpicked, usually based on their speed of foot and ability to blend in, by the military commander or king, and went out and gathered information on enemy strength, position, and morale.

In a biblical display of how intelligence gathering (or lack thereof) can change the course of a battle, in Joshua 10, Joshua, responding to the call of the Gibeonites for aid against the Amorites, marched his army all night. Upon reaching a lay-up point for his men to rest and eat, he sent out a reconnaissance unit to gather intel on the enemy’s position. Realizing from the unit’s reports that he had marched his men into the rear of the enemy positions, Joshua attacked. The Amorites, who in being so focused on laying siege to the Gibeonites, had failed to set rear security, and were routed.

Early Greek Spies and the Krypteia

According to Dr. John M. Nomikos, director of the Research Institute for European and American Studies, in classical Greek history, clandestine and covert ops were both common and hated methods of statecraft. No state would admit to the use of either, knowing that if the operations became public, it would be severely disapproved. Among other things, the Greeks used local citizens who served as “proxenoi.” They had to be a citizen of the city-state in which they served, but not of the city-state which they represented. These men became the equivalent of modern spies or agents. During the Peloponnesian War, they were a conduit for information and clandestine activities in the course of their normal duties.

The background and mission of the Spartan Krypteia, meaning “the hidden, secret things,” is the subject of much debate among historians. Some believe that they were a kind of secret police or state security force whose sole purpose was to terrorize the helot population — the servant-class of ancient Sparta. Others speculate that, at least on the battlefield, the krypteia were used as reconnaissance and special-operations forces, in addition to their role as intel officers.