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The Lessons for Counterintelligence of the Dreyfus Affair

April 2, 2011

Center for the Study of Intelligence, Spring 2011: Officers new to counterintelligence (CI) and overwhelmed by the scope of what they need to learn often ask the same question: “Where do I start?” The best place might be the Dreyfus affair. The tale of French Army Captain Alfred Dreyfus, his wrongful conviction for treason, and how the argument about his guilt plunged France into turmoil is as dramatic and riveting as any true story can be. Just as important, it took place at the dawn of the modern intelligence era, when governments were forming the permanent, professional intelligence services that we know today. Its timing made the affair not only the first modern CI case, but it was also the first modern CI disaster—that is, not just an investigative and legal error, but one that spilled over from the intelligence world into the sphere of mass politics, with consequences for culture and society as well.

Is there anything new to be learned about the Dreyfus affair? More than 115 years have passed since Dreyfus was convicted of treason, and it has been more than a century since he was exonerated. With the facts of the case long settled, the archives thoroughly mined, and hundreds of books and articles published, it would seem unlikely that there is much left to be discovered or said. As the appearance of three new books within a year indicates, however, scholars still can find new ways to look at the affair and draw fresh insights from it.

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