Looking Back At Spycraft Over Times New And Ancient; Book Review Of “A Secret World: A History Of Intelligence,” By Christopher Andrew
Joseph C. Goulden has a book review of, “A Secret World: A History Of Intelligence,” by Christopher Andrew, just published by Yale University Press. Mr. Goulden writes frequently on intelligence issues/matters, and according to his Wikipedia biography, was in U.S. Army counterintelligence before becoming a journalist, investigative reporter and writer. Mr. Goulden gives Mr. Andrew high praise, writing that “he is the leading academic intelligence historian of our time. A professor at the University of Cambridge, he has written a veritable shelf of books on intelligence.”
Mr. Goulden calls Professor Andrew’s new book, “a truly magisterial work, a sweeping history, that stretches from the biblical era, to the present.” “The Secret World,” is a must-read for any person with a serious interest in intelligence.” Mr. Goulden wrote. “But, be forewarned,” he adds, “the more than 800 pages of text require more than a casual scan; but, are well worth the investment of serious time.”
“His evidence,” Mr. Goulden notes, “buttressed in 111 pages of documentation sources, is rich with anecdotes and opinions of world leaders who relied on — or ignored — intelligence as a tool of office.”
“Despite his overall admiration of the intel trade, Mr. Andrews is coldly objective about instances where matters were flubbed,” Mr. Goulden notes. “Consider for instance, Israeli spies who scouted Canaan as the Promised Land centuries ago. The Canaanites, they claimed, “included giants, who made them feel no bigger than grasshoppers.” Professor Andrew “also notes that some glitches are timeless, citing a biblical operation, where spies ended up in a brothel, thus melding the two oldest professions.”
“Sixteenth-century [spy] tradecraft had its oddities,” Mr. Golden wrote. “Officers in the “security service,” of Russian Czar IV, rode with dog heads attached to their saddles, “to sniff out treason” and, carried brooms to “sweep traitors away.”
“But,” Professor Andrew’s “score-card, lists far more triumphs than blunders,” Mr. Goulden noted. “Most notably, he credits signals intelligence (SIGINT), as a key element in the Allied victory in WWII.” I might add that denial and deception were also perhaps equally, if not more crucial; but, I digress.
Professor Andrew’s “focus throughout, is on the pilfering of an adversary’s messages, be they scratches on clay slates, or electronic signals,” Mr. Golden wrote. “For centuries, he documents, European powers routinely waylaid ‘rivals’ letters, and deciphered coded messages. And, he credits the Venetians with establishing the first code-breaking agency in the 1400s.”
“Frederick the Great, voiced enthusiasm about his spy corps declaring…..”in the payment of spies, we ought to be generous, even to a degree of extravagance. That man, certainly deserves to be well rewarded who risks his neck to do your service.”
“Conversely,” Mr. Goulden wrote, “an 18th-century English diplomat deplored espionage, declaring – “I abhor this dirty work.” “To which a compatriot, the Earl of Malmesbury reported, “When one is employed to sweep a chimney, one must [necessarily], black one’s fingers.”
“And, as Mr. Andrew notes, intelligence chiefs were not above altering intercepted messages for nefarious purposes,” Mr. Goulden wrote. “For instance, the famed spy chief, Sir Francis Walsingham, in the service of Queen Elizabeth I, forged a letter from rival Mary Stuart, that resulted in her execution — “a unique, and disreputable episode in the history of English intelligence.”
“But, George Washington was firmly in the realist school,” Mr. Goulden notes. “As Mr. Andrew notes, good intelligence enabled him to “avoid more battles as he fought,” during the Revolutionary War. General Washington “so valued intelligence, that it consumed 12 percent of his budget when he became president. Colleague Benjamin Franklin, specialized in writing spurious [fake] news stories aimed at demoralizing the Hessian [German] soldiers fighting for England.” FYI, it was also Franklin who once said, “Three people can keep a secret — and, two of them are dead.”
“Surprisingly, for all his military acumen, Napoleon Bonaparte “was usually impressed only by intelligence which confirmed his preconceived views,” Mr. Goulden wrote. When I read this, I am reminded of the Weapons of Mass Destruction ‘intelligence,’ and reporting on Iraq. “Centuries later,” Mr. Goulden wrote, Soviet ruler Joseph Stalin suffered the same fault. For instance, he reflexively scrawled obscenities on warnings of an impending German invasion in 1939. Uncountable thousands of Red Army soldiers died as a result of his inaction.” Napoleon also once said, “One well-placed spy is worth two battalions.”
“The invention of the telegraph in 1880 “was a turning point in intelligence history,” Professor Andrew wrote. “Rather than stealing written communiques, technical-minded spies learned to intercept wireless communications, and decipher what they contained.” This must have been a tremendous banquet of riches for the darker angles of our nature — at least for a while.
“The American government held its own against foreign code-breakers through the first part of the 20th century, with a “black chamber” presided over by Herbert Yardly,” Mr. Goulden wrote. “Then, in 1929, an incoming Secretary of State, Henry Stimson, shut down the operation, on the grounds that such intercepts were — “unethical.” “Fortunately, common sense eventually returned, and the United States was taken into SIGINT partnership with Great Britain during WWII.”
“As an example of the importance of Cold War intelligence, Mr. Andrew points to the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, when fingers neared the nuclear button in both Washington and Moscow,” Mr. Goulden wrote.
“Mr. Andrew drives home an important point,” Mr. Goulden notes. “Soviet covert actions during the Cold War were even more numerous than well-publicized operations by the Central Intelligence Agency. The Soviets of course, were not subject to press scrutiny.”
Mr. Andrew’s conclusion: “The more that is discovered about the long-term history of intelligence, the more difficult it will be for policy-makers and practitioners to ignore past experience.”
“But, is such experience being heeded?,” Mr. Goulden asks. “It is not difficult,” Mr. Andrew writes, “to think of current world leaders with little, or no discernible historical interests.”
“An outstanding work,” Mr. Goulden concludes. “Ten cloaks, ten daggers.”
This certainly looks like an interesting read and one I will certainly add to my reading list. Spying, secret codes, secret writing, etc. has a long and rich history, so this should be a great read. In ancient Egypt for example. a slave’s head would be shaved and a secret message painted in ink would be written on his bald head. Once his hair grew back, the slave would be sent on his secret mission and told he would be rewarded once the message was delivered. Except often, the slave was killed at the other end. For a great read on WWII espionage, I refer you to Max Hastings’ The Secret War: Spies, Ciphers, and Guerrillas, 1939–1945.” Noted historian Anthony Beevor,in a June 23, 2016 review of Mr. Hasting’s book in the New York Times, wrote “The secret war probably produced more misleading myths than any other aspect of the conflict. The outcomes of most clandestine efforts are virtually impossible to quantify, so specious assertions have abounded. It has been claimed, for example, that Ultra, the British project to decode German messages, shortened the war by months if not years. For these reasons alone, we badly needed a reliable reassessment to put the secret war in perspective, and this Max Hastings accomplishes with fine judgment in his new book. He covers human intelligence through old-fashioned spying, “signals intelligence” through intercepts as well as deception and counterintelligence, and “resistance,” or partisan warfare. Mr. Beevor added, “The secret world attracted a rich variety of characters. They included the brilliant, the obtuse, the ideologically committed, opportunists, fantasists, prima donnas, eccentrics, and charlatans. Agents of the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) “ranged from pimps to princesses,” in the words of an official historian, while the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS) attracted glamorous recruits, with more than a few leftists from privileged backgrounds. The ideological conflicts of the 1930s extended into World War II, yet British and American intelligence services were almost blind to the level of Soviet penetration. The paranoia and conspiracy theories about the Soviets arrived with a vengeance in the cold war.
“Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, MI6, achieved very little, apart from the odd victory over its upstart rival SOE,” Mr. Beevor wrote. “It survived under its unimpressive chief, Stewart Menzies, only because he managed to keep the Government Code and Cipher School at Bletchley Park, which developed Ultra, within his own organization. MI6’s worst humiliation occurred in November 1939. Two of its officers went to the Dutch town of Venlo on the German–Netherlands frontier, supposedly to meet a representative of dissident Wehrmacht generals. Instead, they were kidnapped by Walter Schellenberg and members of the SS’s security service, the Sicherheitsdienst (SD). Both officers appear to have cooperated fully, giving away details of MI6’s organization on the Continent. The true measure of MI6’s incapacity was its lack of a single worthwhile source of information inside Germany.”
“Both the Abwehr, the German military intelligence service, and the SD proved little better,” Mr. Beevor wrote. “Their agents sent to Britain and the United States were either captured or turned, and agreed to send false reports back to Germany. The Japanese, on the other hand, used their expatriate communities all over Asia and the Pacific to provide very detailed information on their objectives in December 1941, but then they lost interest in intelligence after their early victories.”
“Only the Soviet Union invested vast resources in conventional spying,” Mr. Beevor noted. Yet, “It may have suffered the greatest intelligence disaster of the entire war—Joseph Stalin’s belief that warnings of a German invasion were simply an angliyskaya provokatsiya masterminded by Churchill. Yet Moscow Centre went on to accomplish successful penetrations in Berlin, Tokyo, London, and later in the United States. Most of these came from committed Communists who believed that the Soviet Union was once more in the forefront of the war against fascism, as they had hoped during the Spanish civil war.”
“In the West, the Soviets’ most valuable “HUMINT” came from the Rote Kapelle, or Red Orchestra, in Belgium, France, and Germany and the Lucy network based in Switzerland,” Mr. Beevor wrote. “Neither was made up of professional spies. Prime sources included Harro Schulze-Boysen, a Luftwaffe officer in Hermann Göring’s Air Ministry, and Arvid Harnack, a senior official in the Finance Ministry. They managed to pass on quantities of technical and operational information, but eventually a combination of sexual indiscretions and Moscow Centre’s impatience led to the Gestapo rolling up the Red Orchestra in the second half of 1942 and executing most of its members.”
“One of the Soviet Union’s most effective spies was a mercenary. Rudolf Rössler earned large sums of money by persuading two young women who manned the teleprinter at Wehrmacht headquarters to give him all the punched paper afterward,” Mr. Beevor wrote. “Moscow Centre assumed that Rössler had contacts at the highest level in the German armed forces and demanded to know their names. Not surprisingly, he consistently refused to answer. Moscow Centre then noticed that the material was suspiciously like the transcripts it was receiving from a spy in London (almost certainly John Cairncross). With typical Soviet paranoia, this made the Soviets imagine another bout of angliyskaya provokatsiya, when in fact both were reporting on the same genuine signals.”
“Soviet suspicions continued to prove a liability,” Mr. Beevor observed. “The Red Orchestra warned that the main German thrust in 1942 would be in the south toward the oilfields of the Caucasus. Any indication of a renewed attack on Moscow would be a feint. But when a German liaison aircraft crashed, revealing the plans for Operation Blue and the advance in the south, Stalin instantly assumed that this was a plant and expected another attack on Moscow.”
“The German high command was so arrogant in its invasion of the Soviet Union that it hardly bothered to read Soviet communications,” Mr. Beevor wrote. “This changed only in the late autumn of 1941 when Wehrmacht generals saw that they had gravely underestimated Soviet strength. Red Army codes proved very easy to break, but “the incompetence and myopia of German intelligence” was barely believable. Reinhard Gehlen of the Fremde Heere Ost (Foreign Armies East) department achieved an undeserved reputation for cleverness thanks to delphic phrasing in his reports and his brilliance at office politics.”
“Gehlen, so proud of his spies behind Soviet lines, did not imagine for a moment that he was the greatest dupe of all,” Mr. Beevor wrote. “He thought he had recruited the greatest spy of the war in the form of the agent “Max.” This was Aleksandr Demyanov, the grandson of the leader of the Kuban Cossacks, who had been instructed by the NKVD to allow himself to be recruited by German intelligence. But Demyanov was part of a fake network of mainly White Russians working for the NKVD and the GRU in Operation Monastery, passing false information to Gehlen.
“While spies could prove unreliable, the ability to read your enemy’s signals was the ultimate “golden egg,” as Churchill called it Mr. Beevor wrote. “Some codes were almost laughably easy to break. The British and Americans did not allow the French any access to Ultra material or the secrets of Operation Overlord because they knew the Germans had broken French codes from before the start of World War II. An SOE officer even went to the London offices of General Charles de Gaulle’s Bureau central de renseignements et d’action and challenged the French officials to encode any message they wanted. He deciphered it in minutes in front of their eyes, but they still did not change their system.”
“Shortly before the war,” Mr. Beevor noted, “Polish experts had provided both the British and the French with copies of German Enigma enciphering machines, but the hard-won achievements at Bletchley Park during the Battle of the Atlantic could only have happened in the more informal atmosphere of a democracy. The war at sea was far more centrally controlled from the Admiralty in London than land operations. Its Naval Intelligence Division, commanded by Admiral John Godfrey, with flamboyant Commander Ian Fleming as his assistant, employed nearly two thousand men and women. They all knew that Britain’s survival depended on the Submarine Tracking Room. There the team collated all the intelligence available, especially Ultra intercepts when possible, to reroute British convoys away from Admiral Karl Dönitz’s wolf packs.”
“So much has been written—and dramatized in movies—about the story of Ultra, and yet the work of the Kriegsmarine’s B-Dienst intelligence group based in Berlin has been overlooked. Dönitz was one of the few German commanders to take intelligence seriously, Mr. Beevor wrote. “With a staff of six thousand, the B-Dienst cryptographers broke British naval codes frequently enough, using punch-card technology, to establish a fairly clear idea of Atlantic convoy operations. Paradoxically, the British failed to imagine that the Germans might be capable of breaking their codes. The Royal Navy’s failure to react to warnings until June 1943 led to many losses, and these blunders also helped to keep the Ultra secret safe at a time when Dönitz suspected that his own signals security might have been compromised.
“Whether or not Ultra intercepts actually saved Britain from collapse during the Battle of the Atlantic is impossible to tell. All one can be sure of is that Germany’s U-boat arm was defeated in good time for the invasion of France, thanks to the increased range of shore-based aircraft and the renewal of Ultra decrypts—once Bletchley had broken the new German code enhanced by a fourth rotor on the Enigma machine,” Mr. Beevor noted.
German “Luftwaffe codes, largely due to sloppy procedure, proved easier to break, while German army ciphers were the most difficult,” Mr. Beevor wrote. “The British Commonwealth forces on Crete could have defeated the German airborne assault on the island in May 1941 thanks to the intercept of Luftwaffe communications. But intelligence is only as good as the commander who receives it. Lieutenant General Sir Bernard Freyberg was a very brave World War I officer who refused to believe that Crete could be taken by paratroopers and air-landed reinforcements alone. He wrongly assumed that the main German effort must be a seaborne landing.”
“Hastings also reminds us forcefully that however accurate the intelligence obtained, it is worthless if sufficient forces are not available to make use of it,” Mr. Beevor wrote. ” Fortunately, to end Britain’s run of defeats, the Eighth Army in Egypt had been strongly reinforced in the autumn of 1942. General Sir Bernard Montgomery’s boasting about his victory in North Africa was hardly justified when one realizes just how much it owed to Ultra, which made possible both the destruction of vital Axis convoys in the Mediterranean and the warning of German attack before the Battle of Alam Halfa.”
“The great achievement of the United States was to break the Japanese diplomatic code, dubbed “Purple.” Mr. Beevor wrote. “This gave the Allies access to the reports from Baron Hiroshi Ōshima, the Japanese ambassador in Berlin, including his conversations with Hitler. But the great flaw in such intercepts is often the lack of a subsequent message to show if a decision was then changed.”
“The American triumph in breaking the Japanese naval code contributed greatly to the turning point in the Pacific War, the Battle of Midway,” Mr. Beevor wrote. “Ensign Joseph Rochefort and his small team working in “the Dungeon” on Oahu came up with “arguably the most influential single intelligence achievement of the global conflict,” Hastings writes. “Seldom in history has so much hung upon the word of a single junior officer. If he was wrong, the United States could suffer a strategic disaster in the Pacific.” Luck too played a huge part. The incontinent radio traffic between the US warships setting out to create Admiral Chester Nimitz’s trap for the Japanese navy very nearly wrecked the whole operation. Yet Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, although suspecting that something was up, decided not to break radio silence to warn the commander of the carrier group.”
ADM “Nimitz had made the correct decision, based on the intelligence available,” Mr. Beevor wrote. “Information was of course of no use unless the right assessment was arrived at, but it was not a simple process when sources did not agree or Hitler acted illogically. The age-old problem of intelligence assessment was the natural urge of analysts to put themselves in the tactical position of their opponents, and then work things out using their own logic. In the case of dictators, it was far more important to put yourself into their mind since their thought processes, often tainted with megalomania, were not those of most generals. Yet Hastings is almost certainly right when he judges that the British Joint Intelligence Committee, which assessed material from all sources, proved to be right more often than it was wrong.”
“The most common Allied mistake was confirmation bias—looking only for the elements that supported current assumptions’ Mr. Beevor wrote. Something that happens time an again — as it did with Iraq WMD. “The airborne operation in Holland to seize the bridge at Arnhem in September 1944,” he adds, “was based on the idea that the Wehrmacht was in complete disarray from its retreat from France. This persisted into the winter, with the failure to put together the odd pieces of the jigsaw that pointed to a major strategic counteroffensive. Intelligence officers were blinded by their own conviction that the Germans were incapable of such an effort.”
“Bletchley Park could never be the fount of all knowledge, yet many senior intelligence officers proved blind to the natural flaws of British analysts, such as the inability to process material in time when overloaded with messages, or provide material when the Wehrmacht imposed radio silence on attacking formations,” Mr. Beevor wrote. “Bletchley was very useful, on the other hand, when military leaders needed to know whether deceptions such as Plan Fortitude—the elaborate and highly successful operation that convinced the Germans that the main part of the cross-channel attack in the summer of 1944 would be landings around the Pas de Calais—had been swallowed.”
“The biggest and most effective deception of World War II occurred on the eastern front in June 1944, when the Red Army concealed its preparations for Operation Bagration, which became the encirclement of the German army in Belorussia, and pretended to be attacking further south,” Mr. Beevor noted. “Russian historians, however, are still loath to accept how much they were aided by the RAF and USAAF bombing offensive against German cities. This forced the Luftwaffe to withdraw most of its fighter squadrons to defend the Reich in 1943, thus giving the Red Army aviation supremacy and making German aerial reconnaissance virtually impossible.”
I apologize for the length of the article, but, I thought Mr. Beevor’s review of Max Hasting’s masterpiece, was worth including with the new book by Professor Andrew. Good reading ahead. RCP, fortunascorner.com