The U.S. Coast Guard Investigative Service (CGIS), as it is known today, came into existence in 1915 by the assignment of a “Chief Intelligence Officer” at Coast Guard Headquarters in Washington, D.C.; it remained relatively unknown to the general public until the enactment of prohibition. From then on “Coast Guard Intelligence” grew in personnel and responsibility. In 1986, Coast Guard Intelligence was split and “Coast Guard Investigations” was formed. In 1996, Coast Guard Investigations was replaced by the present-day “Coast Guard Investigative Service (CGIS).”
In 1790, Secretary of State, Alexander Hamilton, asked for and received 10 “Revenue Cutters” to be used to guard the nation’s coast against smugglers. Since then, the U.S. Coast Guard has been the principal agency involved in the enforcement of Federal laws on the high seas and navigable waters of the United States.
The Coast Guard’s law enforcement responsibilities were to ensure that tariffs were not avoided, protect shipping from pirates, and intercept contraband. During the early days of prohibition, the Coast Guard was seriously handicapped by the lack of vessels, particularly fast ones. There are many fascinating cases where the seriousness of these responsibilities would be evident.
For example, in 1927, Coast Guard Picket Boat No. 297, under the command of Boatswain H. P. Parry, was patrolling the vicinity of Black Caesar’s Creek, off the coast of Florida. According to intelligence reports, a major smuggling ring had been operating in the area. Boatswain was no stranger to action. Several months earlier he single-handedly captured two rum boats and their crews in Coral Gables Canal. In another incident, he captured the crew of a rum boat after knocking one man overboard, subduing the other, and completing the operation by taking into custody a woman armed with a pistol. On this night, his fame became even more widespread. The picket boat came upon a boat aground. Three members of the crew were trying to lighten the vessel by throwing sacks of liquor overboard. Parry took the picket boat alongside and placed all three under arrest. The rum runner came aboard, then attacked the coast guardsmen soon after the picket got underway. In the gun battle that ensued, two of the rum runners were shot and the other subdued. The rum vessel and its cargo of 300 sacks of liquor were taken into tow. Killed in the melee was Charlie Waite – known as the “King of the Rum Runners.”
So effective was the Coast Guard’s war against the smuggling of liquor and narcotics that the crime syndicates resorted to clandestine radio stations in order to communicate between ship and shore. They used codes more complex than those devised during WWI. Coast Guard Intelligence set up radio monitoring units on patrol vessels to intercept radio traffic from the smugglers. At that point, Coast Guard Intelligence brought in an expert code breaker, or cryptanalyst, Mrs. Elizabeth Friedman. Much of her activity remains shrouded in mystery, but a few cases – one in particular – are on public record.
Early in 1933, Federal agents were seeking the conclusive evidence needed to nail San Francisco’s canniest rum runners – twin brothers named Israel and Juda Ezra. When agents gained possession of a Shanghai-postmarked letter addressed to the Ezra brothers, a confusing gibberish of words mingled with a jumble or unrelated numbers, they sent the message by radio to Mrs. Friedman. She was able to determine that the letter instructed the Ezras to look for containers of narcotics in eight numbered drums of a shipment of tung oil due to arrive on the Japanese freighter Asama Maru. The agents board the Maru when it made port and found the narcotics. As a result of Mrs. Friedman’s evidence, the Ezras pleaded guilty to narcotics smuggling and were sentenced to 12 years in prison.
For several years, Mrs. Friedman broke codes for CGI; she was entrusted with more secrets of the crime world and of Federal detection activities than any woman in history to that point. As a result of her expertise and that of the courageous men of the Coast Guard picket boats, gang bosses went to prison, syndicates were broken up, and millions of dollars in contraband were seized.
The work of local Coast Guard intelligence officers proved so successful that the Coast Guard established a unit in Boston in 1934; in 1936 the Coast Guard created an Intelligence Division at headquarters in Washington, D.C. Coast Guard Intelligence agents worked closely with their counterparts from other Treasury and Department of Justice agencies during this period targeting both liquor and narcotics smugglers, with great success. During World War II, in an ongoing effort to minimize sabotage and espionage, CGI agents were concerned with internal and domestic intelligence and counterintelligence. CGI’s purpose at that time was to secure, evaluate, and disseminate information pertaining to Coast Guard and maritime matters. This included assisting in identifying known and potential enemy agents and sympathizers. Investigations of military personnel, including those employed or controlled by the Coast Guard, were also conducted. CGI personnel were also involved with counterintelligence support for the war effort in many critical ports throughout the United States.
These efforts by CGI personnel and port security officers paid off – not one known instance of foreign-inspired sabotage on vessels or waterfront facilities during WWII. There was one attempt in 1942. Seaman John C. Cullen, USCG was patrolling a beach on Long Island when he spotted five suspicious-looking “fisherman.” He made a report and within five days the five were captured, with the aid of the FBI. It was discovered they were German saboteurs, landed by submarine with a mission to sabotage New York port facilities. The five were convicted and sentenced to death.
In the 1960’s and 70’s, the Coast Guard continued its efforts against narcotics smuggling; CGI agents were very much involved. In July 1970, the fatal shooting of a man on a remote U.S. Navy arctic drifting ice station on the high seas required action by CGI. At the request of Navy officials, CGI special agent Frank Love was flown to the ice station, where he placed the suspect under arrest and escorted him back to the United States. It had been determined by the Department of Justice that the shooting incident had to be treated under maritime laws covering a “ship at sea” and in that situation the Coast guard had the power of arrest on the high seas.
In 1986, the criminal and intelligence functions of CGI were split from one another and two distinct programs were the result, Coast Guard Intelligence and Coast Guard Investigations. Both programs continued to expand in scope and responsibility. In 1993, a blue ribbon panel, consisting of representatives from the Coast Guard and other Federal law enforcement agencies was commissioned to chart the future course of Coast Guard Investigations. One of the panel’s recommendations was to consolidate or centralize the investigative mission. On 17 June 1996, that recommendation was implemented with the inauguration of the Coast Guard Investigative Service (CGIS).
Sources: Article “Coast Guard Intelligence” by Riccardo R. Dionisio/The Police Chief, July 1975
“Key Woman of the T-Men,” Leah S. Helmick, Reader’s Digest, Sept. 1937;
from an original article in The American Legion Monthly, August 1937