Imagining Soviet Surveying

Last week I wrote about some of the apparent differences between how the US and the Soviet Union used satellites for mapping and geodesy. The Soviets seem to have been slower to operate dedicated satellites in both areas, with no apparent explanation. Though it’s dubious to use US intelligence estimates as evidence of what the Soviets were actually doing, they do at least shed light on some of the possibilities.

Two CIA reports from from the pre-sattellite era, in 1954 and 1957, suggested that if the Soviets had made a connection across the Bering Strait between their own domestic surveys and the North American Datum, missiles launched from near the Bering Strait would have a Circular Error Probable (CEP) of 300–500 feet. Without the connection between datum, the error would be closer to 1,000 feet. By making observations of an upcoming solar eclipse and gaining access to the equivalent measurements from US or Western European sites, the CIA predicted the error in intercontinental position could be reduced to about 500 feet from anywhere in the Soviet Union.

These estimates assumed that the target could be located on high-quality American maps, which the analysts presumed were available to Soviet planners. But what if the targets were secret sites not plotted on any maps? A Studies in Intelligence article (“Spy Mission to Montana”) from 1995 revealed that the CIA and Air Force tested those conditions as the silos for Minutemen ICBMs were being built in 1962. A three-person team, two from the CIA and one from the Army Map Service, made covert observations of the sites under construction from their rental car. Dodging both site security and the official survey being done by the Air Force’s 1381st Geodetic Survey Squadron, the covert team proved that observations could be made with a CEP of 600 feet when maps at 1:250,000 scale were available and a CEP of 200 feet with 1:62,500 scale maps.

Did the Soviet Union make a secret measurement of the Bering Strait or send its agents to survey the locations on American missile silos? The answer is probably somewhere in the files of the KGB or GRU.


Trawling for Spies

A new article in Intelligence and National Security by Stephen G. Craft reveals how the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) ran a counterintelligence program using fishermen along the southern Atlantic seaboard during the Second World War. Expecting that the Axis would land agents on US shores (something that happened, but only rarely) and use German and Italian-American fishermen to support U-boat operations (which seems to have happened not at all), ONI created Selected Masters & Informants (SMI) sections under naval district intelligence officers to recruit fishermen as confidential informants. Their operations caught no spies but offered some comfort that subversion was never rampant along the coast.

For fifty years from 1916 to 1966, the district intelligence officers were ONI’s contribution to local counterintelligence, security, and information-gathering in US coastal areas. The official responsibilities of the district intelligence officer were numerous. According to Wyman Packard’s A Century of U.S. Naval Intelligence they included:

maintenance of press relations for district headquarters; liaison with the investigating units of federal, state, and city agencies within the naval district; liaison with public and private research agencies and with business interests having information in intelligence fields; liaison with ONI and the intelligence services of the other naval districts, and with forces afloat within the district; counterespionage, security, and investigations; collection, evaluation, and recording of information regarding persons or organizations of value (or opposed) to the Navy; preparation and maintenance of intelligence plans for war; and administrative supervision over the recruiting, training, and activities of the appropriate personnel of the Naval Reserve within the district.

The position was only eliminated in 1966, when its investigative and counterintelligence duties passed to the Naval Investigative Service, its intelligence-collection duties to local Naval Field Operational Support Groups, and its other sundry tasks to the district staff intelligence officer.

Admiral Ingersoll, Commander-in-Chief, Atlantic Fleet, and Rear Admiral James at Charleston, South Carolina during an inspection of the Sixth Naval District, 23 November 1943. Courtesy of Mrs. Arthur C. Nagle. Collection of the Naval History and Heritage Command, NH 90955.

In October 1942, the creation of SMI sections added recruiting fishermen as counterintelligence agents to the long list of task mentioned above. By January 1943, the SMI sections had recruited 586 agents, 200 of them in the Sixth Naval District (headquartered in Charleston, South Carolina). Ship owners were paid $50 to cover installation of a radiotelephone, which were provided to about 50 craft. Otherwise masters were to report by carrier pigeon (the Navy operated lofts in Mayport, Florida and St Simon’s Island, Georgia) or by collect call once ashore. Some masters also received nautical charts that were overprinted with a confidential Navy grid for reporting purposes.

Shrimp fleet in harbor, St. Augustine, St. Johns County, Florida, 1936 or 1937. Photograph by Frances Benjamin Johnston. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, (Accessed April 20, 2017.)

The absence of winter shrimp fishing, a tendency to cluster in good fishing spots, and the total absence of enemy covert activity all combined to limit the program’s impact. Further south in the Seventh District (headquartered in Jacksonville and Miami, Florida), most fishing was done so close to shore that the district did not bother to implement the program. In a few cases fishing boats were attacked by U-boat and two confidential observers were reportedly killed in submarine attacks. Though the program operated until V-J Day, few reports of interest were ever received. Similar operations took place elsewhere in the US as well, with scattered references in Packard’s Century of U.S. Naval Intelligence to fishing vessels as observers in other naval districts too.

Shrimp boats were the basis for both overt and covert surveillance. Navy patrol craft like the YP-487 were known as “Shrimpers” because of their origins as commercial fishing boats. Collection of the Navy History and Heritage Command, NH 106994.

How successful you consider the program will depend on how plausible you consider the Navy’s fear of subversion and agent landings. However, the idea of using commercial seafarers as observers and informants clearly proved itself enough to resurface from time to time after the war. In 1947, the Chief of Naval Operations issued a letter authorizing the placing of informants on US merchant ships to detect any crew members involved in subversive activities (this was known as the Special Observer–Merchant Marine Plan). In 1955, merchant ships and fishing vessels were included in plans to collect “merchant intelligence” (MERINT) on sightings of ships, submarines, and aircraft (both efforts referenced in Packard). Did the use of fishermen for counterintelligence continue into the 1960s or beyond? If so, there might have been agents on the boats involved in joint US–Soviet fishing enterprises of the 1980s, carefully watching the Soviets carefully watch the Americans.

Subversive Pigeons

The introduction to Jacob Shell’s Transportation and Revolt (my semi-review here) begin with a précis of pigeon paranoia: the shooting of pigeons in occupied Belgium during the First World War, the systematic slaughter of British pigeons at the start of the Second, pigeon registration in the postwar USSR, a ban on carrier pigeon by the Taliban, the temporary prohibition on pigeon racing during the 2012 Communist Party congress in Beijing. Renowned as a tool of smugglers, criminals, and secret agents – in the imagination even more than in reality – the pigeon is the spur to the question that Shell’s book attempts to answer: “What sorts of carrying technologies have political regimes associated with the movement of weapons papers, or people for political subversion and revolt?”

Pigeon paranoia goes well beyond the examples that Shell notes, wide and fascinating as they are. My favorite anti-pigeon countermeasures remain the Second World War efforts to weaponize birds of prey in both Britain and the United States to hunt “enemy” pigeons. Attempts during the same war by the British to distract German pigeons with British ones (and therefore lead them to British lofts) or to poison the enemy’s pigeon supply with friendly birds (who would fly back to Britain rather than to their expected destinations) can only come a close second.

Pigeons have several advantages as a form of clandestine communications. They are easily concealed, have no electronic signature, and can even be hidden in plain sight where civilians keep pigeons themselves. In fact, the homing pigeon is, to some extent, the living equivalent of espionage’s dead drop. In a dead drop, neither user necessarily knows the identity of the other. The separation between them prevents the capture of one user necessarily revealing the identity of the other. The same is true with a homing pigeon, which is trained to fly regardless of circumstances back to its home loft. Depending on how the pigeon was delivered to its sender, the recipient knows nothing about him or her apart from what they themselves disclose. Likewise, the pigeon’s sender has no way of being sure where the bird is heading.

Perhaps the best example is British intelligence program known as COLUMBA. Starting in 1941, a sub-section of army intelligence (known as MI 14(d)) parachuted homing pigeons with which sympathetic French, Belgian, or Dutch individuals could report back to Britain on the German defenses in their area. As the Telegraph describes it, “Each pigeon came with a miniature spying kit: a bakelite tube to put a message in; sheets of ultra-thin paper and a special pencil; detailed instructions in French, Flemish or Dutch on how to fill in a report.” The attached questionnaire asked about preparations for the invasion of English, troops in the area, military movements, enemy morale, German lodgings, and restrictions on the movements of civilians, among other topics. (Jennifer Spangler has posted many documents related to COLUMBA at her blog, World War 2 History and the WW2 Pigeons. Scroll down in this entry to see the questionnaire.)

COLUMBA relied on the faith of the European resistance that its pigeons were heading for England and the faith of British intelligence that the reports received were genuine. There was, after all, no way to be sure it hadn’t been a German soldier who attached the message to a pigeon’s leg.

In December 1943, MI 14(d) summarized its impact in five points:

1.One out of every nine birds returns.
2. Supplies are ample.
3. Enemy fully pigeon minded.
4. Service worth while.
5. Liaison between 21 Army Group, “I” and R.A.F. to be established for coming operations.

By the middle of 1944, the British had sent more than 13,000 pigeons to the continent. 1,373 returned to Britain, 808 of those with messages. That was only 6% of messages sent out but apparently the resulting information was impressive. The staff of COLUMBA cheerfully reported all evidence of Germans reacting to the Allied operation. Reactions included a 2,000 franc reward for turning out a pigeon with equipment and message and occasional reports that the Germans were dropping their own decoy pigeons to sew confusion among potential correspondents. They also concluded that there had been little or no contamination of the intelligence with deliberate German misinformation.

I don’t know exactly what happened to COLUMBA after the invasion of Normandy, but a summary report a month after D-Day said they were ramping up to deliver 2,000 pigeons a month and that mobile lofts were ready to join the 21st Army Group in France.

Several European countries, including Britain, maintained military or intelligence service pigeon operations after the Second World War. The Swiss had 7,000 military-owned birds in 1995 and the French were still maintaining a cadre of 150 in 2012. The fact the Cold War stayed cold meant none of them saw action, but one homing pigeon did find itself unexpectedly drafted into the propaganda war being fought across the Iron Curtain.

I turned out that it was possible – albeit difficult – to “hijack” a homing pigeon en route and use it to deliver an entirely unexpected message. In 1954, a homing pigeon involved in a race from Nuremberg to Munich got lost and crossed the Iron Curtain, landing in Pilsen, Czechoslovakia. Found by someone who recognized its West German banding, they attached a message for the US-operated Radio Free Europe:

We plead with you not to slow down in the fight against Communist aggression, because Communism must be destroyed. We beg for a speedy liberation from the power of the Kremlin and the establishment of a United States of Europe.
We always listen to your broadcasts. They present a completely true picture of life behind the Iron Curtain. We would like you to tell us how we can combat Bolshevism and the tyrannical dictatorship existing here.
We are taking every opportunity to work against the regime and do everything in our power to sabotage it.
– Unbowed Pilsen

The message and pigeon, delivered to RFE by its owner, were an instant propaganda coup. “Leaping Lena” became the symbol of RFE’s 1955 fundraising drive, then retired to US Army Signal Corps pigeon breeding center at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey. (The story appears on the RFE website, but that seems just to repeat what’s in newspaper articles from the time.)